Thursday, March 19, 2009

College Shambles Comes Crashing Down

Pie in the sky plans to create shiny new  college cathedrals to New Labour learning have come crashing down around the government's ears, with a mixture of incompetence and broken promises leaving the building programmes a shambles, as funding cash dries up. 

Colleges in England face going bust as they embarked on a massive £5 billion rebuilding programme on the back of a promise the funding would be available. 

Now saddled with debt, some students are packed into temporary accommodation. No buildings means no students and no income to repay the loans.

Some 144 college building projects in England are on hold while the monstrous quango, the learning and skills council (LSC), dithers around after promising funds for refurbishment. 

Now, as the colleges face going bust, they stand to lose £100 million because of the delays in construction. 

The amount of cash needed is eye-watering. The 79 schemes approved in principle would cost nearly £2.7 billion, with another £3 billion needed for the 65 colleges that had also submitted bids.

But the cash had to come from somewhere and with the recession starting to bite, banks are increasingly reluctant to stump up the cash.

The government is in a complete pickle and the LSC could face legal challenges because they had given assurances to colleges over the funding.

But in a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right is up to, the LSC, which has approved 8 projects, says "it has always been perfectly clear that full funding and final approval was not guaranteed and that colleges were proceeding at their own risk".

Branding the delays as “a quite extraordinary catalogue of incompetence”, exacerbated Tory spokesman, David Willetts, said ministers need to come clean on the scale of this problem. "At every stage we've had to wring information from them using freedom of information requests."

Colleges were "actively encouraged" by ministers to go ahead with works and "now they are all at a standstill because of this extreme mismanagement."

Skills minister, Sion Simon, has admitted the programme “has not been managed properly” by the LSC and even its own quango doesn’t know how and what mistakes were made.

Refusing to accept any of the blame, ministers have resorted once again to their favourite trick and appointed  a trouble-shooter to investigate delays and look into the mistakes.

Colleges are not the only shambolic building plan which is starting to eat itself and disintegrate, as a damning report on the government's over ambitious plan to refit every secondary school recently revealed it is up to £10 billion over budget and almost two years behind schedule in a discredited PFI sham.

Like the college rebuilding, the scheme to renovate England's secondary schools could grind to a halt because banks are not lending money as building firms struggle to raise the cash needed to take part in the £45 billion 'Building Schools for the Future' scheme.

The college confusion illustrates the reality behind the delusions of Brown's pledge to bring forward capital works as the recession bites and makes a mockery of the spin to give priority to training and apprenticeships which are at the heart of further education.  

Fine words are one thing but with a government living on borrowed time with borrowed money, delivering on an over ambitious and unrealistic promise is quite another. 

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