Long before college lecturers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their principals to march on Westminster back in the autumn, those representing the sector had their eyes on a longer-term goal. A handout from Philip Hammond in the chancellor’s Autumn Statement – whether it was for an increase for core 16-19 funding or a badly needed injection of cash to fund a reasonable pay rise for college staff – was always a long shot.
Rather, an enhanced funding package from the Treasury in this year’s spending review, to address years of underfunding of FE, was always the primary target of both campaigners behind the #RaisetheRate and #LoveOurColleges campaigns. The same is true of the Department for Education, which has invested considerable time in crunching the data on the FE sector’s resources (of lack thereof) to try and persuade Hammond and co that more cash is required
Going from previous years, a three-year settlement would be expected –although, given the uncertainties over the UK’s post-Brexit economy, the Institute for Government has suggested that a much shorter, one-year time frame could be on the cards.
But has this strategy proved to be misguided? A change to how student loans are recorded in public finances will add £12 billion to the national deficit this year. As a result, the Treasury – already grappling with the many and varied possible permutations of Brexit – is more likely to be focused on balancing the books than splashing out on additional public spending. Hence the reports emerging today that the chancellor will have to find billions of pounds in next month’s spring statement if he is to spare public services another significant funding squeeze. In short, funding levels are even more stretched than a few weeks ago.
Among senior figures in the sector, views are mixed as to whether 16-19 funding will get the boost it needs from HM Treasury. Received wisdom suggests that the odds are 50-50 at best.
If apprenticeships and skills minister Anne Milton is to be believed, the FE sector’s only hope relies on it loudly making its case and persuading the Treasury bean counters to loosen the purse strings. And, to be fair, the sector has upped its game in the lobbying stakes. Following the high-profile push in Colleges Week, a petition calling for better funding has attracted more than 70,000 signatures – and resulted in a Westminster Hall debate on FE funding.
Ms Milton revealed at the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s (SFCA) winter conference last month that FE funding had been one of the most popular subjects of correspondence to the department for an eight-week period at the end of 2018 – no mean feat for a sector often muscled out of discourse by universities and schools.
'Not the usual suspects'
Just last week, a letter signed by 165 MPs from four parties calling for better college funding was handed over to Mr Hammond. And the signatories make for interesting reading, with notable Conservatives Boris Johnson, Sir Nicholas Soames and Sir Hugo Swire among their number. These are by no means the usual suspects from the Labour backbenches.
I am a signatory to @RichardGrahamUK and @NicDakinMP 's letter to the Chancellor @PhilipHammondUK about Education Funding. I was also a lead signatory calling for a 6 hour debate on Education Funding to the @CommonsBBCom which they hope to schedule soon. pic.twitter.com/9C6q3sdcwT— Will Quince MP 🇬🇧 (@willquince) February 11, 2019
What this means is that, firstly, the Treasury is under pressure to deliver. And secondly – and perhaps more significantly – so is the Department for Education. Simply pointing the blame at the Treasury’s accountants is no longer a good enough excuse. And Tes understands that the DfE is fully aware of this, with Department staffers having been tasked with drawing up options of how to fund a 16-19 increase from within its existing budget, should the Treasury fail to come up with the goods. While the bare minimum increase of £200 per student put forward by the SFCA and others would not make a game-changing dent in the scheme of real-terms funding cuts in recent years, it would at least help ease the ever-rising pressures on college principals.
One of the options that could be under consideration would be allowing the DfE more flexibility by extending the ringfence that protects (or freezes, depending on your perspective) education funding, up from 16 to 18. While this might on the face of it achieve little in addressing long-standing, real-terms funding cuts for FE providers, it would at least give the DfE the option of quietly pushing some funding away from the younger age groups to 16-18 students.
Let’s hope that this is not necessary, and that the powerful case for FE funding made by the sector and the DfE will persuade Mr Hammond that it’s worth increasing spending in this an area, which is in dire need of a boost. But the fact that finding extra funding for FE from elsewhere in the DfE is under consideration at all would appear to be a small step in the right direction.
Stephen Exley is FE editor at Tes