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'College funding cuts have a hidden cost'

We need more funding to run vibrant colleges that provide a holistic education, writes Boston College principal Jo Maher

Colleges need proper funding to provide a holistic education, says principal Jo Maher

We need more funding to run vibrant colleges that provide a holistic education, writes Boston College principal Jo Maher

The statistics highlighting the disparity in further education funding are widely known. Last week's Colleges Week campaign – jointly led by the Association of Colleges and many of our trade unions – helped to raise the profile of the funding gap between colleges and other parts of our education system, with the Russell Group of universities and the minister for skills and apprenticeships Anne Milton among supporters of the week.

However, one important voice was missing in its support: Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer. Despite the statistics highlighting the unfairness in funding, they seem to be simply not important enough to trigger investment, because as Justine Greening MP highlights, the skills training for over two million young people is viewed as a "cost rather than an investment".

If the objective numbers and evidence of inequality in funding are not enough to force change, we need to look behind the numbers and consider the impact that the lack of investment is having on young people’s lives, as well as the current and future cost to public services and businesses. 

The evidence base linking educational attainment and public service costs is strong, but not always presented in an explicit or connected way to further education. Therefore, highlighting the areas that have been cut through reduced funding, which will influence public services spending in future or reduced productivity, is an important avenue to explore.

Less contact time with students

I have been in the sector for 12 years and when I started, my sports students were in college for four days per week, minimum, with dedicated time for sport on a Wednesday afternoon. Those who did not want to compete could engage in enrichment activities, ranging from pilates to cookery, dance to woodwork.

Students had time in their programmes to gain coaching badges that directly resulted in their ability to get part-time coaching jobs while they studied, and first aid qualifications which build vital life skills, valued in every job with many companies taking staff “off the job” to qualify.

The students had the option of an annual trip abroad to take part in sporting fixtures, because staff had the time to organise and the ability to go to supervise the trip – trips that added cultural capital, teaching learners the art of patience, teamwork and sharing, to get along in a group together 24/7.

The cost of enrichment at colleges

The same students today are lucky to have three full days of teaching contact, depending upon English and maths. They get extra badges if they can pay for them. Great staff are prepared to run trips abroad, but it is likely this will need overtime to arrange them. As for enrichment, colleges are hard-pressed to afford the time and cost to deliver anything above the mandatory safeguarding, Prevent, British values, Gatsby benchmarks and training in mental wellbeing (as opposed to running activities that improve wellbeing by their nature).

If we value our young people, we must invest in their futures to support our communities, public services, employers and economy. In order to do this we need vibrant and sustainable colleges that provide a holistic education and opportunities to develop. Funding needs to be consistent across our sector to achieve this.

We are investing in our leaders of tomorrow, who need to be resilient, challenging, high-performing and healthy. Our education system needs to have the opportunity to deliver these core traits. It should not be funded by the hour to get students to pass assignments and train them "about" things policymakers want – as opposed to living, experiencing them and thriving.

Jo Maher is principal of Boston College

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