The group, which is made up of some of the UK’s biggest colleges, will today publish a report warning that increases in bureaucracy, cuts in funding and continued inflexibilities in non-devolved regions could see learners suffer.
Skills devolution: £630m in adult education funds handed to mayors
Principals from both non-devolved and devolved areas, as well as combined-authority officials, were interviewed for the report.
It says: “If the [Education and Skills Funding Agency's] rules remain the same, colleges in non-devolved areas will be stuck in a rigid system with no room for innovation, whereas colleges and, most importantly, learners in devolved areas will benefit from a flexible system with bespoke rules and strong support from its regulating body. On top of that, growth grants will be more accessible to devolved regions as more funds are available to access.”
Skills devolution ' will create an uneven playing field'
The report says colleges in non-devolved areas will find themselves on an “uneven playing field” when it comes to budgets. Colleges in combined authorities with a devolved budget will receive their budgets on a two-year basis – a huge benefit for them. But colleges in non-devolved regions will still receive their budgets yearly, limiting the scope of their plans.
One principal said: “If their [devolved colleges] earning assumption is over two years, that gives them a huge advantage over colleges just over the border, which will be subject to the absolute rigidity of the national regime, which demands claw-back if you haven’t spent something in your five-month window.”
Devolving the entire adult education budget (AEB) would not solve those issues, the report points out, because there would be no alignment of skills nationwide, which would adversely affect the position of England to the rest of the world.
Instead, it suggests that ESFA rules are changed to ensure flexibility for non-devolved colleges, and says that a renewed approach to AEB can bring significant positive changes for learners, providers and employers.
Bureaucracy around the devolved budgets is also highlighted as a concern by college leaders, with principals sceptical as to whether combined authorities could guarantee a more equitable or efficient distribution of public funds than would have otherwise been the case under the national system. They also warned that resources could be required for administrative purposes, diverting the funds away from learners.
It still remains unclear how the elements of devolution will work in practice – and whether or not the “ambitious approaches” of the devolved regions will be successful, the report concludes.
Ian Pretty, chief executive of the Collab Group, said there was great potential in devolving AEB budgets to combined-authority areas – and over time, there could be a real difference made to the openness and access of education and training for adults.
“However, we are seeing that the new arrangements will have knock-on effect on college's outside of combined authority areas, many of whom have seen their allocations cut. What we need to ensure is that over time the entire funding system across England is made more flexible, which will bring considerable benefits for both learners and providers,” he said.