Dear future prime minister,
Congratulations on your election. I suspect that you will be rather busy now with all sorts of big issues. Brexit, security, social care, the NHS and schools will probably be dominating your red box, and rightly so – they are pretty important and you will continually hear about the crises facing them all.
I want, however, to take you away from those crises for a moment and focus your attention on a great opportunity. Colleges exist in every community, serving over 2.2 million students every year. Students who are doing their best to get the education and skills they need to be successful in life and in work. Students who come from every part of our society, learning at all levels and across every possible subject you can imagine.
Lib Dem manifesto: Skills wallets and funding
Labour manifesto: A National Education Service and adult education
Conservative manifesto: Conservative manifesto: £3bn for ‘national skills fund’
All well and good, but the needs of those students and of the millions more who could be supported have been sorely neglected over the last decade. Your party recognised that in its manifesto, as did every other main party, making this one of the few cross-party issues of consensus. In fact, you’d have to look very hard to find anyone who does not now believe that we need to #LoveOurColleges more.
That support is for what colleges do, for the impact they have and for the great opportunity they represent to do even more. A thriving college in every community is vital for a healthy and inclusive economy and to give people of all ages better life chances -this is within your grasp. The impact a college has is profound – they truly are part of the national infrastructure in the same way as hospitals, schools and universities. Sadly, their neglect by successive governments has left them in need of urgent attention. Despite that, college leaders stand ready to leap into action once given the chance to grow and develop.
So, here’s what I think you should do. I imagine you’d be up for delivering a big speech in which you pledge to make the 2020s a great decade for colleges, and for the people and employers who rely on them. You would want to announce a lot more funding, over at least a three-year horizon, but five or even 10 years would be better still. Funding for 16- to 19-year-olds and for adults, support for students to be able to afford to access learning – childcare, transport, maintenance – and funding for colleges to invest in building, technology and innovation. I’d gladly help your officials on the numbers.
You could speak about the sort of culture of lifelong learning in society you want to help create, in which everyone accesses learning throughout their lives, for leisure, pleasure, mental well-being, transition to work, promotion and re-skilling. You can take rhetorical flights of fancy about this because learning really does help people transform their lives, their outlooks on life, their job opportunities, their sense of being and their contribution to our society. It really is that good.
That would all be wonderful, but there is perhaps an even more important step for you to take. It might be a bit too mundane for the speech, so I’ll settle for some detailed policy and legislative changes. I wouldn’t want to ruin a rousing and uplifting speech with talk of a protected title, reformed and streamlined regulation, status and accountability – but all of that is needed.
Overall funding cut
Colleges have existed in a strange position since the 1990s when they separated from local authorities and entered supposedly independent and private sector status. The independence has certainly not helped them cope with a 30 per cent cut in overall funding in the last decade, but it has helped politicians disregard their needs. It’s great in theory to have freedom and independence, but without resources, it can often feel empty. That status also belies the very strong public sector ethos which colleges and their staff have. So, a quick review feels appropriate to me to ask whether being part of the public sector would help address the urgent funding, capital, staff pay and investment issues which colleges face.
The review could also pick up the Augar report recommendations to provide a protected title, develop more specialisms in colleges and to simplify the regulatory and accountability mechanisms. On the title, it might be better to think of a few names which reflect the diversity of the college sector – sixth form college, technical college, community college, perhaps would provide simple clarity on what each college or campus was focused on. On specialisms, colleges are the natural place for employers to look for skilled people up to level 5 and sometimes beyond. And on regulation and accountability, a simpler system would free up time, effort and resource that could be better focused on engaging students, employers and creating partnerships with universities and schools.
This might be one of the few areas of government business which offers quick wins, but also sustainable impact. In a tight labour market, and a rapidly changing world, how better to grasp the future than through a highly-educated, adaptive and confident group of citizens? Education and skills can open up so many opportunities, but their lack will hold back economic progress – the choice is yours. We’d love to work with you on this and to move fast, because we want the 2020s to see a renaissance in colleges, supporting millions more people. Helping make our country the best place to live in, with a healthy and inclusive economy and respected across the world.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges