EXCLUSIVE: 3.1k college staff put at risk of redundancy

As college finances are put under pressure due to Covid, thousands of staff are facing an uncertain future, finds Kate Parker

Kate Parker

Redundancies: 3.1k college staff at risk

Almost 3,100 college staff in England found themselves at risk of redundancy over the last two years, Tes can reveal. 

With an estimated 110,000 staff employed by colleges in England, that means 3 per cent of staff were put at risk of redundancy across 2019-20 and 2020-21 so far. 

Unions said key roles had been cut and institutions had to stop reducing staff numbers if leaders and the government were serious about the importance of further education.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, colleges told Tes 1,994 staff were put at risk of redundancy in 2019-20. That year, 1,026 staff either took voluntary redundancy or lost their job. So far this year, 1,090 were put at risk, and 591 have been made redundant. Overall, that means 1,167 were cut across the two years. A total of 135 colleges - well over half - responded to the FOI. 

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Background: Almost half of colleges to make redundancies in 2020

Around 37 of the colleges who responded to Tes said they had placed no staff at risk of redundancy or made anyone redundancy across 2019-20 and so far in 2020-21. 

Last summer, a survey by the Association of Colleges revealed almost half of colleges were planning to make redundancies in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic on finances. 

In November 2020, the IFS warned college finances had been "eroded" by Covid, and the Education and Skills Funding Agency confirmed more than 60 colleges had "issues" with the number of cash days left. 

In February 2020, the government was intervening in nearly half of colleges for financial health reasons, and had to provide over £250 million in emergency funding, alongside other support, to ensure the continued functioning of colleges. In January this year, the Public Accounts Committee urged the government to urgently get to grips with the financial state of further education institutions. 

The impact on support staff 

Tes data shows it is support staff who have been most affected by the pressures on college funding. Across both years, support staff were the most likely to be put at risk of redundancy, and to be made redundant. 

In 2019-20, 47 per cent of those put at risk were support staff, and 52 per cent of those who were made redundant, including voluntarily, were in that category. 

So far in 2020-21, 52 per cent of those put at risk were support staff, and 55 per cent of who were made redundant, including voluntarily, were support staff. 

Redundancy data

Jon Richards, head of education of Unison, said it would be impossible for colleges to work closely with local employers without support staff.

He said: "College employers said they were unable to offer staff a decent pay rise this year because all their efforts and resources had gone into saving jobs and avoiding redundancies. These figures tell a different story.

"Key support jobs have gone - especially those which can't be done from home. Many more are at risk and be as Covid restrictions continue. But when students return, they'll need all the catch up help they can get, and support staff will be key.

"The skills White Paper also requires further education colleges to work much more closely with local employers. This will be impossible if support staff are axed. More government resources are needed to put a stop to this depressing situation."

UCU: Data is only part of the picture

Teaching staff accounted for around a third of roles across both years: 34 per cent of those put at risk in 2019-20, and 34 per cent of those who took voluntary redundancy or were made redundant in the same year. 

So far in 2020-21, 29 per cent of those put at risk were teaching staff – and the same percentage have either taken voluntary redundancy or have been made redundant this year. 

Leadership and management staff accounted for 12 per cent of those at risk in 2019-20, and 14 per cent of those who took voluntary redundancy or were made redundant in 2019-20. 

This trend has continued into this year: 14 per cent of those put at risk so far in 2020-21 are leadership or management roles, and 10 per cent of those made redundant this year were leaders or managers. 

According to the University and Colleges Union, the reality could be worse than Tes’ figures suggest. 

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said the union’s members in FE reported almost 1 in 50 (1.9 per cent) had been made redundant, with more than 1 in 20 (5.6 per cent) at risk of redundancy.  

She said colleges “must stop making staff redundant if sector leaders and the government are serious about the importance of further education.”

She added: “Properly funded and thriving colleges are not only important for the future of the economy, but crucial for rebuilding society after Covid and tackling climate change. Yet even after more than a decade of cuts, further education staff are still being cut. This data begins to uncover the scale of recent job losses, but with more than 100 colleges refusing to respond, it’s only part of the picture. 

“24,000 teaching jobs have already been lost due to these cuts, so yet more redundancies mean further damage to student learning. Colleges must stop making staff redundant if sector leaders and the government are serious about the importance of further education. More cuts to further education are the last thing we need in the face of an endemic skills shortage, worsened by Brexit. We need a once in a generation investment in our colleges: now is the time to grow the further education workforce, not shrink it.” 

Which colleges made the most cuts?

The colleges with the highest number of staff put at risk across both years were Education Partnership North East (224), Bradford College (167), Cornwall College (148), Tyne Coast College (129), and Askham Bryan College (117). 

Askham Bryan College is due to close its Newton Rigg Campus this year, leading to many staff being put at risk of redundancy.  

Tim Whitaker, chief executive officer and principal of the college said: “We understand the strength of feeling for Newton Rigg amongst our students, staff and the local and wider community and regret the upset the campus closure and job losses will cause. We will continue to support our students and staff during this difficult time.”

A spokesperson for Tyne Coast College said: "Covid had a significant impact on the FE sector.  Unlike many colleges, we have a unique international offer with our South Shields Marine School which due to its niche expertise, international reach and commercial training was unable to fully function in line with the international and national restrictions necessary during Covid. 

"The college operates as a business and, like most businesses, we had no choice but to reassess the business as a whole and make efficiencies." 

The colleges which responded to the FOI and saw the highest number of jobs cut across both years were Bradford College (167), Cornwall College (145), Sir John Deane's Sixth Form College (74), Education Partnership North East (68), and East Sussex College Group (60).

Dan Shelley, executive director of strategic partnerships and engagement at East Sussex College said there had been "difficult decisions" linked to lockdown. 

He said: "Sadly, the vast majority of these redundancies were from our commercial teams with our catering, events and international business units significantly impacted by the Covid pandemic. This meant we had to make some difficult decisions in year staffing adjustments linked to lockdown one and in preparation for an uncertain year in 2020-21."

A spokesperson for Bradford College said: “In 2019, Bradford College underwent a full college restructure after the agreement of the Restructuring Facility (RF) and to reduce staff costs. The college restructuring fund was signed off in March 2019 on the basis that the college’s financial health would incrementally improve, with the college expected to move to a financially good position by 2020-21.

“Unfortunately, Covid-19 and the government’s lockdown has had a significant impact on many businesses and organisations, including Bradford College. Like many other colleges across the country, Bradford College saw a significant fall in income for the 2019-20 financial year and we were unable to secure any provider relief funding to support the fall. Apprenticeships were particularly hard hit. As a result of the Covid-related funding pressures and to maintain staff costs in line with RF, Bradford College began restructuring consultation processes in June 2020 for both the college and its subsidiary company, Training for Bradford. 

“It was very disheartening that the college was in a position where it had to again propose job losses, but it is committed to supporting all its staff and students and has aligned its curriculum offer based on local needs, and a clear commitment to support the economic recovery in the region." 

John Evans, principal and chief executive of Cornwall College, said: “Like all FE colleges, we are always looking to operate as efficiently as possible. We have successfully implemented a change strategy means we are now ideally placed to provide a modern and exciting experience for all our students, who can look forward to progressing onto fantastic careers." 

A spokesperson for Sir John Deane’s College said: “Not a single teacher or business support professional at the Sixth Form College has been made redundant this year or last year.

“Unfortunately, we had to make 5.07 redundancies (full-time equivalent) which relate exclusively to adult education, where the average age of students is 55-77+, and to staff at the leisure centre.

“The college is in a healthy financial position and our priority must be to offer full time education for sixth form students with our resources entirely focused on delivering the curriculum.”

'Inadequate funding from the government'

Anne Murdoch, senior adviser on college leadership at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the statistics reflected “the grim reality that college finances are under enormous pressure because of inadequate funding from the government”.

She said: “Support services are inevitably more vulnerable because teaching has to be prioritised, and this is likely to be why more support staff are affected by redundancy. However, as we can see from the FOI statistics, teaching posts are also affected in such a difficult financial climate, as colleges look at where they can rationalise courses.

“In particular, apprenticeship and commercial income both took a big hit since the start of Covid and during national lockdowns. These tend to be areas of business where there are large numbers of staff on support contracts as well as teaching staff. The government must match its rhetoric about further education with an urgent and significant improvement to the funding it provides to this vital sector”.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges had worked really hard, despite very challenging finances, to avoid redundancies wherever possible. 

He said: “Colleges employ around 111,000 people and while no redundancy is welcome, these figures show grant funding assurances last year and the Job Retention Scheme have protected the majority.   

“It is clear job losses have unfortunately impacted staff at all levels and across provision has fallen off since the start of the pandemic, including apprenticeship delivery and commercial training. Colleges, like employers in most sectors, continue to find themselves in challenging financial situations as a result of the pandemic. As we move into the next phase of recovery it is vital colleges are given the resource to retain and reward their workforce to support the nation with building back better.”

Education Partnership North East have been contacted for comment.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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