Quietly but determinedly over the past year, colleges have crept up the priority list for this government, for MPs and for employers. While all eyes and the media understandably have been focused on the ongoing uncertainties of Brexit, colleges seem to be having a moment.
At the Association of Colleges, we are naturally delighted about that. We’re working hard to ensure that the moment lasts long enough for a decent funding settlement, as well as the policy changes that will create an environment in which colleges can thrive and grow to meet the diverse needs of the people, employers and communities who rely on them.
At the same time, it is important to reflect on why our moment in the spotlight has arrived – because understanding that might help us to retain it for longer.
Politics is a fickle friend, as we know, so today’s priority might be tomorrow’s austerity cut. With a budget pencilled in for 6 November at the same time as pundits are putting short odds on an election before Christmas, I’m all too aware that our position as one of the “people's priorities” (or so said the chancellor in September) could evaporate. Here are my five key drivers for why colleges are now in the spotlight.
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It just so happens today marks the first day of the second Colleges Week, with colleges across the country inviting their students, staff, local MPs, employers, partners and local media to celebrate the impact they make. Influential people have started to think about why they value their colleges and have been happy to talk about it – on social media, in newspapers, in Parliament, in the corridors of Westminster, at conferences and fringe events. In the year that our campaign has been running, I have lost count of the notable people and organisations getting behind the #LoveOurColleges messages. I’m pleased to say it’s worked, better than I ever imagined it would, probably because of the other four drivers.
The interminable Brexit chaos and the associated drop in the value of sterling has led to a reduction in the number of EU nationals working here. Combined with a dip in the numbers of young people entering the labour market, that has led to employers struggling to recruit into semi-skilled and skilled jobs. University graduates are still a priority for many employers, but increasingly they are looking to their local college to help with recruitment. Sadly, the cuts to funding mean that without more investment, colleges will struggle.
After a decade of austerity, politicians are now focusing on where increased spending will make the most difference. In education, all the main political parties recognise that the preference given to higher education has been unfair and unwise. Universities seem to have lost their lustre, as politicians look to the "forgotten third" or in some places the "other 50 per cent" of people who have not had a higher education experience. At its most simple, this is about social justice because we know that educational achievement is a key factor in finding sustainable and good employment. The recent Augar report helped highlight the injustice of neglecting college funding and is still an important influence.
With the likelihood of an early general election, political polling will be high on politicians’ minds. At the Conservative Party conference this month, the Social Market Foundation gave a sneak preview of some polling it has commissioned from Opinium. It examined how technical and vocational education is polling compared with universities. Its view is that more people are now questioning the value of higher education, particularly older voters, and more young people and parents are looking favourably on college alternatives. I’ve no doubt that this has not gone unnoticed by the main parties.
At the referendum in 2016, more people with degrees voted to remain and the consensus is that many leave voters felt unsupported and cut off from the opportunities enjoyed by others. That was certainly a bigger factor than political leanings per se. Given that less than half of the population will study to degree level makes the alternatives important in meeting leave voters’ needs and wants. If the next general election is dominated by a leave-remain polarisation then politicians will want to show that they are keen to invest in the local college that will cater for local people of all ages and backgrounds.
We certainly live in interesting times. Who’d have thought that this Colleges Week would include a Queen’s speech, another crucial EU Council meeting and Parliament sitting on a Saturday for the first time since 1982. As well as following all the news on those events, I’ll be tidying up our draft AoC general election manifesto asks because I’m hoping that our moment in the spotlight continues well into the future.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges