Government ministers are rushing to act on a BCS warning that a new scheme to encourage IT training opens the way for suppliers to increase their fees five-fold and charge the extra to taxpayers, writes John Kavanagh.
The society has alerted ministers to the fact that the Individual Learning Account (ILA) scheme, which pays 80% of the fees on 30 courses leading to recognised qualifications such as City & Guilds, National Vocational Qualifications and BTEC, applies no upper limit to the amount charged.
The BCS runs one of the qualifications, the European Computer Driving Licence for office and network applications, and approves companies as training and testing centres.
The society has written to education minister Malcolm Wicks pointing out that the ILA scheme, launched this month, allows training companies to add 400% to their fees while keeping the cost the same to individuals: the companies can get the rest from the Government.
The letter to Wicks from the society's vice-president on training issues, Geoff McMullen, also expresses concern that payments made through the ILA scheme do not depend on people passing any exams at the end of their courses.
"The scheme would appear to offer unconstrained funding for private training organisations, with little incentive for them to encourage students to undertake assessment once the teaching is complete," McMullen writes.
"The Government is at risk of spending large sums of money in the private sector with little certainty that those who have undertaken the learning have in fact mastered the syllabus."
The Department for Education and Employment has reacted immediately to the letter - with a warning to training companies.
"Ministers intend to place a cap on the 80% discount and will do so as quickly as possible," the department says.
"Meanwhile, we are taking advice and will take action, including legal action, against any instance of inappropriate use of the 80% discount."
ILA helps Amraf cut its training course costs
The Individual Learning Account (ILA) scheme has enabled one supplier, Amraf Training, to cut the cost of its 28-hour European Computer Driving Licence from £4,000 to £800 for individuals, who can now get the other £3,200 from the Government. But without a cap to the scheme, the company could have continued charging £4,000 to individuals and increased the course cost to £20,000, getting 80%, or £16,000, from the Government.
Amraf's fee is at the top of the range for this qualification - some further education colleges charge around £100 - but Amraf managing director Tony Jordan says the company has found big demand for what he calls a Rolls- Royce course. For example, people get home study materials and they can retake any of the seven driving licence modules free of charge until they pass the test.
About 86,000 people have started European Computer Driving Licence courses and 950 training organisations have got BCS approval since the qualification was launched in the UK in May 1998. The demand is partly reflected in the fact that at Amraf a course leading to a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer qualification costs less than half the price yet provides seven times the number of hours.