The further education sector will come together next week when staff, students and principals from colleges across England head to London to make an unprecedented united demand for extra funding.
On Wednesday (17 October) they will march through central London to a rally in Parliament Square before taking their message direct to MPs in the House of Commons, as part of the Colleges Week campaign.
As the country attempts to grapple with Brexit and skills shortages, the further education sector should be at the centre of our planning for the future. Colleges specialise in helping those who are often hardest to reach for our traditional schools and universities. Colleges are remarkable places which transform lives and, given the chance, they could help to transform our country, too.
Yet over the the past decade we have seen a 45 per cent cut in the adult education budget and overall college budgets slashed by 30 per cent. Colleges teaching 16- to 18-year-olds do so with 15 per cent less funding than they had eight years ago.
A raw deal for college staff
This makes a real difference in key areas. For example, there has been a drop in enrolments in engineering from 150,000 per year to 50,000 per year and in health and social care from around 680,000 to 220,000. Both are sectors facing skills shortages.
The Association of Colleges and others are right to highlight that, despite these cuts, colleges do an incredible job. But this performance is not without its victims. While over a million adult learners have been lost to education as a result of the cuts, staff, too, have had a raw deal.
Since 2009, pay for FE teachers has dropped by 25 per cent in real terms, and the pay gap between teachers in colleges and schools now stands at £7,000. In that same period, the number of teachers in colleges has dropped by a third as we have lost almost 24,000 staff.
Low pay is forcing teachers to quit
The message that sends to people considering working in the FE sector is clear – if you do, you will have to accept inferior pay and conditions, low job security and a gradual erosion of status compared with your colleagues in schools.
Low pay lies at the heart of issues with recruitment and retention to key subject areas. Around two-thirds of college heads say pay is a major obstacle for them when it comes to attracting staff, and even AoC chief executive David Hughes accepts that pay is too low.
It is no wonder staff are walking away from careers in teaching, and colleges are struggling to recruit. Those moving out of the sector aren’t doing so because they want to, but because low pay is affecting serious life choices like whether to try to save for a house or how many children to have. The truth is that while the sector has faced and dealt with many crises over the years, what we are facing now means that further education is fighting for its life.
Invest in college staff
Politicians are never short of warm words when it comes to our colleges, but there is little action to back up the rhetoric. Education secretary Damian Hinds’ speech to the Conservative Party Conference at the start of the month promised £38 million new funding for colleges but even this tiny amount will be focused on buildings and infrastructure, not on our most urgent need, which is to deal with the issue of teacher pay.
There is no doubt that students in the FE sector want staff to be prioritised. It is the fantastic teaching that brings students to colleges long after the paint has started to peel on new facilities.
The University and College Union has been campaigning against the cuts for a long time. We are the first to recognise that budgets are very tight. However, what disappoints us is that many colleges choose not to prioritise investment in their staff even within the resources they have.
Strikes on the cards?
Too often it takes industrial action before resources are found to improve staff pay and conditions. In at least one college, staff have had no pay rise at all in the past decade, and a majority of institutions ignore the nationally agreed pay award. This is a totally unsustainable situation.
So while we are ready to stand alongside the rest of FE next week in calling for extra investment in the sector, we are also clear that colleges themselves must do more to support their greatest asset – the staff.
Matt Waddup is head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union