By Suzannah.Brecknell

15 Jun 2011

A college business manager complains that government endlessly changes the rules

“I’m the senior business manager of a further education college offering both sixth form and adult education. My responsibilities in the college cover pretty much everything except the actual teaching.

For years, college funding systems have been a bureaucratic mess. They are currently being reviewed, and I am happy with the recent changes and direction of travel; but one of the problems is that they’re always being reviewed and changed, which creates considerable costs and makes long-term planning impossible.It’s a common joke in our sector that when we do a standard three-year return, everybody knows that the figures for year three are meaningless.

We have to deal with two organisations for our funding: the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). We used to have to deal with local authorities too, so things have gone from completely impossible to just about workable, but it would be better if there were just one agency working with colleges. Colleges now have a designated manager from one agency, but further reform would help.

It doesn’t help that we colleges get paid less for teaching a sixth form pupil than the schools. The new government has agreed to resolve this disparity, but in the current climate this means that school funding will be reduced, rather than ours being increased.

There’s another way in which our treatment is different from that of schools: our VAT status. If we were a school or an academy, we could reclaim VAT; but because we’re a college, we can’t. That’s a big advantage for schools because they can buy equipment or build a new building and reclaim VAT, while we have to pay it.

Government ministers struggle to explain this. They usually cite a European directive, but we don’t think they have much of a legal leg to stand on. We would pursue a judicial review, but the problem is that over the past few years our legal status has kept changing. We were classified as not being in the public sector, then we were, and now they’re moving us out of the public sector again. As a sector, therefore, we decided to wait until our legal status is certain before challenging the VAT situation.

There’s another change on the horizon: in future, colleges will become more like universities, and students over 23 years old will no longer get any funding from the government. Instead, they’ll have to get a loan from a student finance body. Many of us in the sector do not think this will work. You would expect a university graduate to get a good wage, but many of our former students will earn low salaries – and some the minimum wage. For example, we train childcare workers. You need qualifications to work in this sector, but you would have to be a really keen childcare worker to take on about £7,000 of training debts in order to earn the minimum wage on graduation. Training of mature students in the childcare sector could come to a grinding halt if this is not addressed.

Some disadvantaged students used to receive Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to encourage them to continue studying. This was scrapped by the government last year – a move that I support – and is being replaced by a new system; they’re cutting the funding by two thirds, and the remaining third they’re giving to colleges so we can decide how best to help students in need. We will get the details in late June, which is very late and means that we cannot develop our plans or issue any guidance to either new or current students; such delays are pretty common in our sector.

When the guidance does arrive, we’ll have to spend a lot of money gathering data to assess eligibility for the new funding: students will have to bring us their parents’ payslips, P60s and benefits information, so that we can take photocopies and prove the household income. If we have to do that for hundreds of students, it’s quite a lot of work.

Schools already have this data, which is used to determine eligibility for free school meals, but because of the Data Protection Act they can’t share it with us. They could pass it on if they got the permission of parents – but local authorities have said they’re unwilling to do this because of the increased cost to them. As with health and safety, people are too cautious with data protection and misinterpret the rules. It would save a lot of money if the law was changed to say that public organisations can share information amongst themselves for any legitimate purpose relating to the remit of that organisation.

In my opinion, both our funding systems and data protection laws should be simplified, to make them less complicated and bureaucratic. And once government has done that, it should leave them alone, stop constantly changing things, and let us get on with the job."

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