Aside from the mind-blowing excursion into the colourful pasts of the candidates, the leadership contest for the Conservative Party appears to be heading along familiar lines. Pledges to increase police numbers, spend more on schools and cut income tax have all emerged even before the starter’s gun has been heard. Following closely behind are murmurs of more money for defence, roads and hospitals.
Nothing so far from most of them on putting right the 10 years of neglect of further education, lifelong learning and college investment. Despite the analysis, arguments and advocacy from too many reports to mention in the past year, it appears that evidence-based policymaking and funding decisions really do come second to the politics.
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Why isn't FE a political priority?
And as David Russell has pointed out, there is also the whole challenge of delivery to factor into those decisions. That was the basis for Stephen Exley’s useful article in Tes, which rang depressingly true.
Now, I may have missed some other political priorities in that list (police, schools, income tax, defence, roads and hospitals) but by my calculation that puts colleges and lifelong learning at best seventh as we head into what might be a rapid and frenzied spending review this autumn. It’s important to understand where that list comes from; it’s certainly not random.
You’ll all have your own views on this, but I would imagine that social care, housing, pensions and possibly social security/welfare might be vying for that seventh place. But we don’t really need to speculate, because a quick scan of polling organisations’ websites will provide enough evidence to any politician of what will go down well with the electorate.
What colleges can do for the country
Those pollsters don’t even bother to ask about FE, colleges and lifelong learning. That’s how far behind we are with the directly political priority hotspots. More often than not, it’s "education" which is asked about, or "schools". Both score highly, hence how often they will be referred to by leadership candidates. Colleges might be nudging ahead of universities at the moment, which is notable but depressing in its own way: I’d prefer to be working in unison with them to advocate for better tertiary funding overall.
So what to do? For us at the Association of Colleges (AoC), we are focusing on three simple tactics as part of our strategy. College funding alone will never vie for top 10 in the electorate’s priorities so we need to advocate in terms of what colleges can do on other priorities – employment, productivity, health, economic development, tolerance, inclusion, social fairness and so on. One by-product of the Brexit mess is how important it is to support businesses to thrive as they face stiff competition whilst suffering from widening skills gaps. At the same time, the narrative about a "country that works for everyone" has started to stick.
Unpacking those two narratives and showing how colleges can deliver will be key to securing support and investment. That’s the first step. The second step is to maintain the raised profile that colleges have achieved, now being talked about as a "vital part of the national infrastructure" and starting to be trusted to deliver in every community. Our campaigning will continue to focus on these issues of politics and delivery.
'Overlooked and left behind'
That’s why I wrote to the leadership candidates last week, urging them to pay heed to two major priorities they should focus on. I suggested that they needed to be clear "how you would support businesses to thrive, and at the same time how you would champion those who often feel overlooked and left behind". So there’s the political with some strong evidence behind it.
For the delivery, I said that "colleges exist in every community in all four nations and are well-placed to help you tackle these tough challenges from your very first day in Number 10". The letter goes on to set out three ways they can help: implement the Augar recommendations, raise the 16 to 18 base rate and inject capital into college estate and technology. Simple.
The third tactic is to mobilise college leaders, staff, students and the employers and partners they work with to talk to and encourage their MPs to back us. That’s as important with Conservative MPs as it is with Labour and other opposition parties because of the chances of an early general election. Luckily, colleges have between them built strong and supportive relationships across the political spectrum with hundreds of MPs, all willing and keen to voice their support in Parliament and locally.
I’m looking forward to responses from the leadership candidates to my letter and hoping that we can drive colleges, FE and lifelong learning, perhaps even tertiary education up the agenda over the coming weeks. Whether we do that or not, we will need to work hard over the summer and into the all-important autumn to influence the new PM, chancellor and education secretary as they decide how to put money behind their priorities.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges