Is the 'decade of neglect' finally over?

Government has been not just neglectful towards colleges – but also careless, writes AoC chief executive David Hughes
16th November 2020, 4:53pm


Is the 'decade of neglect' finally over?
College Funding: Could The Decade Of Neglect For Colleges & Fe Finally Be Over?

After a decade of neglect, college leaders are starting to feel that things are changing, that they are "having a moment". There is an underlying hope, bordering on optimism, that the next decade will be so much better than the last. We coined "decade of neglect" as a simple campaigning phrase and it seems to have worked.

There are two sides to the neglect. Firstly, it reflects the lack of investment that has seen a 30 per cent cut in funding that colleges have had to adapt to. That overall funding cut has resulted in reduced numbers of adult learning opportunities; reduced teaching hours; poor teacher pay; lack of margins, making college viability increasingly tough; and a lack of surplus to invest in technology, kit and buildings.

Crucially, though, the "decade of neglect" phrase was not just about funding. It was also about the carelessness with which the government treated colleges and the further education sector more widely. The true and primary neglect was a failure to "give proper attention to" colleges and FE, particularly in comparison to the attention to higher education and universities, to schools and to apprenticeships. A simple comparison of investment by the government over the past decade in each shows, of course, how the two are related with more attention resulting in more investment.

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In many ways, it is worse than that, because for colleges it has often been felt that with the neglect has come too much interference and a lack of respect. The neglect is clear in terms of disinvestment. The interference is a daily experience of micro-management, eligibility rules, threats of clawback (the college funding agreement is over 100 pages long and full of rules which only really delight the auditors who police them) and policy diktat which restricts what colleges can do to meet need and demand. The lack of respect has been felt acutely by college leaders in the past decade, who, all too often, have been subject to policy that is imposed, sub-optimal or plain inappropriate.

The need for more college funding

The good news is that much has already changed and there is a consensus now on the need for a better post-16 education and skills system, supporting people to be prepared for longer careers in which training, reskilling, agility and continuous personal development are the norm. A future in which employers invest more in supporting the development of their people, in partnership with colleges and other education providers. A future in which skills and productivity are front and centre of government ambitions, strategies and investment plans. A future for lifelong learning which helps people to realise their ambitions and talents.

This renewed understanding of the vital role of colleges has been growing in the past couple of years, particularly as Brexit has focused minds on how our labour market cannot rely so heavily on skilled people from overseas. More profoundly, the work of the Commission on the College of the Future has built a new consensus about how important colleges are as anchor institutions and strategic partners with employers and with government. The pandemic has simply underlined that, with colleges showing in why they matter so much - for people, for places and for productivity. For this government they will be central to the levelling up agenda. They are vital for the green recovery, for our health service, to build the housing and infrastructure we need, for our engineering and manufacturing industries, for hospitality and tourism and for so much more.

So after a decade of neglect to 2020, it's worth asking what we should hope for over the next 10 years. Not easy to encapsulate in one or two words, but I feel it is my job to try. I'd love it if my successor at AoC is able to look back and talk about a decade of partnership and growth. That is what we need if colleges are going to help deliver the education and skills transformation we need as a society and for our economy.

Partnerships start with understanding of all parties, grow through relationships of mutual ambition and require true respect if they are to last. They need hard work from all, rules, systems, investment and accountabilities, but none of that is sufficient without the culture being right. That's why I am so excited about the Commission on the College of the Future's report for England, out this week, which offers a vision developed in partnership, recommends the systems changes needed and describes the culture we need for success. If the government's White Paper can capture that spirit and take forward the recommendations, then we are in for a good few years.

The changes needed by all parties are going to be challenging. Change always is. But the prize is worth working for. So, for now, I will remain optimistic and work my socks off to help achieve what education secretary Gavin Williamson said in July: "Colleges (should) be pivotal in their communities [….] playing a leading role in developing skills in their areas, driving an ambitious agenda that responds to local economic need and acting as centres for businesses and their development."

If the AoC chief executive in 2030 can look back and say that was delivered, I will be a happy man. More importantly, more people will have been able to get on in life with the education and skills they need, the economy will have grown more successfully and inequalities in outcomes will have narrowed, if not disappeared. Our country will be a better place for it, because colleges truly are vital for all of us.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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