Colleges need funding - but they need other things, too

The college sector's demands need to be about more than funding, writes David Hughes

David Hughes

The college sector needs funding - but it needs more than that, writes David Hughes

Last week, the chancellor showed that when it comes to protecting jobs and helping people stay in work, he is prepared to be bold. Our spending review paper simply challenges the chancellor to be bold on the post-16 education and skills system and investment we need for a successful future.

It is as simple as that: skills as well as jobs; training alongside the Job Support Scheme and Kickstart; supporting colleges to offer a safe, purposeful and supportive environment for people of all ages; working with colleges as strategic partners and part of the national infrastructure.

I’m confident he is listening, and I'm optimistic that announcements will be made soon. The work on the FE White Paper and discussions about the spending review have all been positive, and even if both of those get postponed until 2021, the chancellor and the prime minister seem to be happy making significant announcements when the timing feels right. The winter economic plan is a good case in point. A skills plan would be a great next step.

Our spending review submission covers a lot of ground. After a decade of neglect and austerity, there is a lot of catching up to be done on funding. With adult funding rates unchanged for 10 years and 16-18 funding rates lagging after being frozen for seven years, inflation has led to drastic reductions in teaching hours, support, infrastructure and viability.

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But it would be a mistake to characterise our submission as simply saying that colleges want to be paid the right and fair rate for what the students, employers and the government expect from them. That would be a big step forward in itself, but we want a lot more. More than anything, colleges want more investment and to be clearly at the heart of the economic and social recovery all of us want to see.

Our submission has five parts. The first reflects all of the short-term additional costs colleges have incurred that need to be funded: from the extra PPE and transport that are keeping students safe to the catch-up support and laptops that will help to ensure that inequalities in educational achievement are not widened.

The second is to support the development of the strategic and unique role that colleges hold in our education system. Funding for developing even better long-term relationships with employers and a boost to higher technical skills both based on a new national strategy which we hope will be delivered through the White Paper.

The third is about adults and covers ground that seems to have been overlooked so far in the six months since the pandemic began. If I had to choose one section of our submission for the PM or chancellor to make announcements about soon, it would be this one. Quite frankly, government funding does not go nearly far enough to address the needs of adults or the demands of the labour market, to match the rhetoric of "levelling up" or to deliver on the advice of the Post-18 Review led by Philip Augar. It’s such a great opportunity for the government to show that this matters to them and to make a big impact.

Employers in some sectors are already worried about filling skilled jobs when demand returns and want training funded rather than relying on people from overseas. Adults made redundant want retraining to be on offer for them rather than just job-search support, particularly for those displaced from retail, leisure and hospitality and other sectors so damaged by the pandemic. Many young adults wanting to enter the labour market need flexible learning with pathways into sectors where better jobs will be available as the economy recovers, even if they are not now.

We want urgent action to bring forward plans for the National Skills Fund to be used to offer free learning up to Level 3 for all adults, more work in growth sectors with employers to plan pathways and support people into jobs, and more joining up across the government, with colleges at the centre. Colleges can play a systems leadership role by bringing employers together, supporting the labour market and linking people with jobs. With fewer separate siloes, colleges would be able to meet local priorities in line with the national ones – construction, digital, health and social care, logistics, green skills to name a few.

The fourth section is about young people and re-states the list of issues we have been talking about for some years now, including the overall funding rate, extending the pupil premium beyond the age of 16, high-needs funding and support for demographic growth. A good start was made on some of this a year ago in the then chancellor’s announcement of a rate rise for the first time in seven years, so we are expecting more to follow.

The final and fifth section advocates for a simpler regulatory, funding and accountability approach, supported by the Dame Mary Ney review and the most recent NAO report. This is another set of recommendations where we expect the forthcoming White Paper to focus and which will be needed to underpin the new strategic role colleges will play in the education system and in the communities and labour markets they operate in.

Overall, we have made proposals that add £1,625 million in the 2021-22 financial year. That’s a big number but the impact would be enormous – on people, on productivity and on places. It would place colleges in the driving seat of the recovery, as strategic players striving to help the economy thrive and people to get into work and progress.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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