Let’s start with the good news: Colleges Week was a triumph. Despite the sustained real-terms funding cuts that FE has suffered for as long as I’ve covered the sector, it has proved notoriously problematic to get its representative bodies working together.
Until now. The Love Our Colleges campaign, girded by the righteous (and completely justified) indignation over the Department for Education’s double standards in funding a pay rise for school teachers but not for college lecturers, triggered an unprecedented outbreak of unity.
The Westminster march featured CEOs standing shoulder-to-shoulder – literally – with union reps. The open-top bus for speakers at the rally was packed with sector leaders, union firebrands and student representatives, arguing passionately and eloquently why funding FE properly was a must, for the country as well as for the sector. It was inspiring to watch. One of the biggest cheers was reserved for City and Islington College principal Andy Forbes, who spoke of his hurt at being forced to axe jobs and cut courses to keep the institutions he has run afloat.
Love Our Colleges: widespread support
All but a handful of colleges took part in the campaign; in the region of 3,000 supporters turned out in a sodden Westminster. A petition and protest song, both driven by students, also served to raise awareness.
Away from the speeches, quieter but arguably more important work was going on in the Palace of Westminster, where college representatives were lobbying their local MPs to put pressure on the Treasury. If we’re being brutally honest, a 3,000-strong rally won’t worry Philip Hammond; a queue of worried backbench MPs in marginal constituencies lining up outside his office, though, could have more of an impact. The challenge for the sector is how to maintain this momentum.
And here's the bad news: the campaigning is unlikely to pay off any time soon. Few insiders expect Hammond to stand up in the House of Commons tomorrow and announce that the Treasury has performed a U-turn and will stump for a pay rise for college teachers.
Hinds ducks out
The biggest clue yet is that education secretary Damian Hinds has already pulled out of the Association of Colleges' annual conference in November. To be frank, this is unlikely to be because he's too modest to take plaudits for winning a pay rise for college staff; avoiding awkward questions from college leaders about why their staff don't deserve a pay increase is the more likely explanation.
The more realistic prospect is that better news may be forthcoming in next year’s Spending Review. Data from the behind-closed-doors review of FE funding taking place at the Department for Education will be available to deploy in lobbying for extra funding for the sector.
With the positive response to the Love Our Colleges campaign, the FE sector being central to Hammond’s party conference speech and the Institute for Fiscal Studies laying bare the cumulative impact of years of funding cuts, pressure on the Treasury is building. It's just a question of if, how and when it will respond.
Keep up the pressure
Apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton has long professed to be the person knocking loudest on the Treasury’s door to make the FE sector’s case. She told a fringe session at the Conservative party conference that she couldn’t win the argument alone and needed all the public support the sector could muster.
Such utterances often garner understandable scepticism but, based on what I've seen and heard, Milton’s support for FE and apprenticeships is genuine. And, with T levels being the only substantial piece of reform the DfE is overseeing in the current Parliament, Damian Hinds would surely welcome some overdue financial support for the sector on whose work the success of his flagship qualifications will depend.
Indeed, insiders have privately made the case that publicity arising from college strikes over pay could actually have strengthened the DfE’s hands in negotiations with the Treasury. The tough ballot threshold, though, means that a handful of college strikes are unlikely to cause too many sleepless nights for the bean counters in Whitehall.
But, even if the news from the Budget tomorrow is disappointing, don’t give up the fight just yet. There’s no guarantee of a funding boost coming in the spending review, but it’s certainly a possibility. And the longer and louder the Love Our Colleges campaign can make its case, the better its chances of success – whether in the short-term or not.
After all: the FE sector is for life, not just for Colleges Week.
Stephen Exley is FE editor of Tes