The general election is just weeks away, and so far, further education has been the focus of many policy announcements.
Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), warns that politicians take advantage of the confusion that often comes with these big-ticket, multi-million or multi-billion policy announcements.
Election 2019: Conservatives announce £1.8bn for college buildings
Adult education: Labour pledges six years of free study for adults
Lifelong learning: Lib Dems pledge £10k adult education 'skills wallet'
Speaking to Tes at the Association of Colleges (AoC) Annual Conference, he said: “[Politicians] just throw around any big number, and people think, 'Oh, so they’re going to spend a lot of money on that.' But actually it doesn’t really matter if they’re going to spend £100 million or £100 billion."
So what does Mr Johnson make of the numbers and policies that have been announced over the past few weeks?
Conservatives: £1.8 billion for college buildings
Prime minister Boris Johnson promised the FE sector £1.8 billion over five years for college buildings, to ensure that the entire FE college estate was in “good” condition. Earlier this year, the government announced an extra £400 million for 16-to 18-year-olds. A report published by the IFS in September said that, factoring in inflation, the reality was £300 million for colleges.
Mr Johnson said: “Compared with both the schools and the universities, that £300 million still leaves the FE sector doing much worse over this whole period.
“We know that you need another £1 billion to get back to where we were in 2010. Sixth-form college funding is down much more substantially than that £300 million. To be effective, you probably want to be repeating that gradually over a period of a parliament, rather than [offering] a one-off increase.”
He said that while college buildings and infrastructure were important, pay in FE colleges and sixth forms was a real issue that needed to be addressed.
“Pay is really a situation where teachers in FE and sixth-form colleges get paid less than teachers in schools. It’s quite a remarkable decision to increase the minimum teacher salary to £30,000. Pay is going to be a real issue in the college sector."
Mr Johnson added: “There’s a danger of focusing on shiny buildings – which are clearly important – rather than the long-term sustainability of the sector."
Labour’s free learning for adults
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner and Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, announced plans to give all adults free entitlement to six years of study at levels 4-6, including undergraduate degrees and equivalents such as diplomas and foundation degrees.
Mr Johnson said that the policy is in the right ballpark: “We know that funding for adult education has fallen and we know that employer on-the-work training has fallen, and we need more of it. I suppose the unknown question is: how much of this would really catalyse change?"
Labour’s plan to scrap university tuition fees throw up some concerns, he added.
“If this is completely free to the students and there's no cap on student numbers … it's in the interest of every university to maximise the number of students that it gets through and it gets lots of money for them, particularly for the cheaper to teach," Mr Johnson said.
“If this is completely free to your students and you've introduced maintenance grants and so on, then I think the biggest worry with this policy is, is it consistent with maintaining student numbers without number caps?
“And if you do have to reintroduce student number caps, then what sort of students is it likely to impact on? So again, from the Labour policy I would like to understand much more than what the big retail offer is going to free, and much more about so, what does that mean for the overall sort of way in which we fund, regulate, manage universities?”
Liberal Democrats’ £10k 'Skills Wallets'
Early last week, the Lib Dems pledged to introduce “Skills Wallets” for every adult in the UK. Each adult would be able to access £10,000 across their lifetime for education or training.
Mr Johnson said that the policy reminds him of the individual learning accounts introduced by the Labour government in 1997. He said that because of the “disasters” around that policy, the Lib Dems’ Skills Wallets would need to be very carefully regulated.
He said: “We know that money matters but actually, you know, information and advice and clarity and all those other things about what is a sensible way of spending that money and helping people spend it usefully is probably as important.
“Engaging employers is key [to the Skills Wallets]. My understanding is that this is a sort of purely individual thing. We kind of know that the most effective training, certainly for adults, is often delivered by or in conjunction with or as part of their employment relationship, so involving [employers] as well would be important, I would have thought.
“It's clearly something that will need a lot of development, but, I mean, it's an idea that's been around for a long time and it's not so dissimilar in principle to the individual accounts. I'm sure the lessons have been learned from those but there were some pretty big lessons.”