When I started at the Association of Colleges in 2016, there were three things that college leaders wanted more than anything else: one was funding, and I suspect that will always be top of the list, because, without adequate and fair resources and investment, running a thriving college is tough work. The other two were more interesting and significant, even if they were not as clearly articulated as the simple one of wanting more money. Both were ambitions I was more than happy to work on, knowing that to achieve them takes many years and concerted efforts.
At the heart of what college leaders were saying was that they wanted more engagement with government and for colleges to have a more high-profile role both in the education system and in local economic, community and wider developments. Running through all three "wants" were two more desires – wanting to be both better understood and properly respected.
Our approach at the AoC over the past four years has been firmly targeted on all five of those – funding, engagement, profile, understanding and respect. Three hashtags describe how we’ve designed our campaigning and public affairs work – #LoveOurColleges, #CollegesWeek, #andcolleges – and they mark the increasing confidence of college leaders to work collectively on simple, positive and forward-looking messaging about the role and impact of colleges.
Need to know: The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill
Very early on, we were clear that we needed to talk more about the positive impact that colleges have, rather than focusing on negatives in the sector. Too often, campaigns paint a picture of deficit, and doing that with colleges would have been to deny the incredible life-transforming role that colleges have for over 2 million people and the roles they play as good community-focused institutions. We do talk about the decade of neglect that colleges suffered because that was an important baseline, but we couched that in terms of helping people to think about how much more colleges could do with the right levels of investment. The pandemic may have helped because of the agile student- and community-focused way colleges adapted and got on with things. That is testament to the amazing people who work in colleges and to their commitment to their students’ wellbeing, learning and progression.
Funding and respect: Key priorities for FE colleges
There are lots of signs that this collective action by colleges, with their students, employer partners and other advocates, has worked. The past fortnight was perhaps the pinnacle so far, with the Queen announcing a new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I say "so far", because the real peak will be when (or if) we see a marked increase in investment; reforms that really do deliver greater autonomy, less bureaucracy and the culture shift in government to a more trusting and appropriate regulatory relationship.
The new bill firmly puts colleges in the political spotlight, backed up by the prime minister’s commitment to helping give people the skills they need throughout their lives via a new Lifetime Skills Guarantee. It is a strong affirmation of colleges’ central role in economic and social recovery from the pandemic, and efforts to build a fairer, healthier, more sustainable society.
The skills bill
It’s very early days in terms of the bill and the complementary Skills for Jobs White Paper reforms, which are equally as significant as the prospective legislative changes, particularly on funding and accountability. The bill will make its passage through Parliament over the next six months or perhaps more and we expect to see key consultations this summer from the Department for Education on funding and accountability, as well as on the lifelong loan entitlement. The reforms proposed look promising, even if we have concerns about some of the new powers and how they might be triggered.
That all brings me to my own personal tally of how far we have got as a sector in meeting those five key "wants":
- Profile – good progress. I'm not sure I can remember a Queen’s speech and associated comments from the prime minister in which post-16 skills and colleges have been so prominent.
My score: 4 out of 5.
- Engagement – I have never seen better engagement with AoC and college leaders from the DfE. We have ministers and senior officials who clearly want to work with us and recognise that the complexities of reform require co-design and honest discussions. Long may it last.
My score: 4.5 out of 5.
- Funding – We have a long way to go after a 30 per cent overall funding cut in the past decade of neglect. The IPPR estimates that £5 billion more funding is needed to bring it back to 2010 levels, and that looks unlikely in a tight spending review. Recent announcements show we have turned a corner, and may suggest a rosier future.
My score: 2 out of 5 (but I'm hoping that moves to 3 or 4 at least when the spending review is announced).
- Understanding – Colleges are complex institutions, delivering to all ages, all levels and all stages of learning and life. They are not easy to understand without seeing them in action. Each college has a unique personality, so there is great diversity across the sector and many hide their jewels behind a modesty that is heartening but ultimately self-defeating. We need to do more to be understood, but in Whitehall there are now more people who do understand and who have become advocates after having their eyes opened.
My score: 3 out of 5.
- Respect – Not easy to measure, but it was lovely to hear the prime minister and education secretary talk about the need to end decades of snobbery in our education system in favour of universities and degree-level studies. Strong words are required as first steps, but respect needs more than that. Trust, regulation, rules, support and intervention will be my key tests.
My score: 2 out of 5 (but with some optimism that will increase by the end of the year).
That makes a total of 15.5 out of 25. I suspect that in 2016, I would have put it closer to about 5 out of 25, so the progress is significant. Do you agree? Which "wants" would be your top five? What would your scores be?
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.