"Profound". That’s how David Hughes describes the raft of political pledges that have been made in regard to FE this week.
“Ahead of manifestos, politicians are making announcements about colleges and education – that’s never happened before. Plans for colleges aren’t just in small print, buried in the manifesto,” he says.
The Liberal Democrats kicked things off by revealing plans for “skills wallets” – a £10,000 fund that adults would be entitled to throughout their life. Labour then announced that all adults would have free access to education for six years, scrapping tuition fees for good. And then on Wednesday, the Conservatives pledged £1.8million for college buildings.
Conservative announcements: Conservatives announce £1.8bn for college buildings
Labour pledges: Labour pledges six years of free study for adults
Liberal Democrat plans: Lib Dems pledge £10k adult education 'skills wallet'
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Speaking ahead of the Association of Colleges' annual conference next week, Hughes says that even with the big pledges from the three major political parties, the sector can’t afford to be complacent. They’re just promises, he says – and after 10 years of savage cuts, the sector needs sustained, realistic investment over the next five to 10 years, not just a big influx of cash now.
And it’s not just money that the sector needs, he says. Sorting out the relationship between colleges and government is key.
“[Government needs to] treat colleges like partners, as part of the national infrastructure, think about how regulation works," Hughes says. "It’s incredibly bureaucratic, it’s costly, it probably contains innovation and action instead of supporting it. I’m not sure they will put anything in their manifesto, but that’s where we need to go and that’s what I’ll be saying on Tuesday.”
The general election does mean that there will be a lack of political figures at next week’s conference. Gavin Williamson was due to give a keynote speech but had to pull out due to restrictions ahead of the general election next month.
But Hughes remains optimistic ahead of the conference.
“It will give the sector two days to talk about what sort of system we want to operate in, what we want regulation to look like, the funding mechanism, the accountability, the targets, the intervention and support: what do we think they should look like?
“We’ve got an opportunity to go back to the new government and show them the changes we want. And then on the flip side, what do we as colleges need to do to be the best we can be? Governance and leadership, support staff, developing their skills, reaching out the employers, engaging communities, working collaboratively together, working with schools and universities.
“The conference comes at a really good time to have those discussions. We are in discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Education and worked with Number 10 until the election was called, talking about all those issues. And when the next government starts, those are the issues we will be able to move quickly on,” he says.
The Association of Colleges annual conference takes place 19-20 November in Birmingham. Tes is the media partner for the conference