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Alison Wolf: Funding cuts could make FE 'vanish into history'

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Further education in England could “vanish into history” because the current funding system is “destroying” the sector, according to a report released today.

The dire warning comes from Professor Alison Wolf of King’s College London, who carried out an influential review of 14-19 vocational education for the coalition government in 2011.

In her new report, Heading for the Precipice, Professor Wolf claims the current post-19 funding system is “unstable, inefficient, untenable and unjust”, and says it is “destroying” non-university education.

She also claims that the government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships is “largely unfunded” and will be impossible to achieve without major policy changes.

Her report comes just days after skills minister Nick Boles warned that “difficult choices” would have to be made about the “less productive bits” of the FE system.

Mr Boles also said it did “not take a genius” to realise that more investment was needed for the government to hit its apprenticeship target.

Funding for adult education in colleges has already been slashed by 24 per cent for the 2015/16 academic year, and the Treasury has announced that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will have to make further savings of £450 million.

Professor Wolf’s report says technical education is already being “squeezed” – skills spending per head on 20- to 60-year-olds has halved since 2010, and the total skills budget fell below 2002 levels in 2012.

This trend is set to become worse over the next few years as spending commitments and protected budgets are implemented elsewhere, it claims.

“This threat to skills education is compounded by the effects of the ever-expanding gulf between college and university funding,” it states.

Professor Wolf argues that as the gap expands, student demand will move into the university sector, driving technical education out of the FE colleges, resulting in the “destruction” of the college-based part of the education system and “crippling” the country’s ability to provide technical, employer-facing education.

She said: “We should all be extremely concerned about our increasingly inefficient and inegalitarian system of funding post-19 education.

“Our future productivity and prosperity are at risk if we don’t address the ongoing erosion of provision outside the universities.”

Nigel Thomas, director of education and skills at the Gatsby Foundation, which backed the research, said: “Professor Wolf’s report lays bare the failures of the current system of funding and how these threaten the provision of technician-level training.

“Technicians are critical to our economy but our skills system is not producing them in anywhere near sufficient numbers.”

The warnings echo those made recently by the Association of Colleges (AoC), which claimed that adult education could disappear completely by 2020 if government funding cuts continue.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said Professor Wolf was right to raise her concerns.

“Colleges are ambitious and work hard to make sure they’re helping to produce a workforce with the right skills for the local job market but they cannot do this alone,” he said. The government must look again at its funding of adult education and training and ensure that it is given the support it so rightly deserves.

“In 2011, Professor Wolf issued a landmark report which changed the face of post-16 education. Her latest report is equally as important.”


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