'I'm sick of making redundancies and axeing courses'

By Andy Forbes on 25 October 2018

Andy Forbes became a principal to change students' lives. The reality has been depressingly different, he writes

I’ve never known a time when politicians of all parties have been so willing to express their love for FE colleges. Sadly, I’ve also never witnessed so many colleges in such chronic financial trouble. The FE sector is being slowly starved of the resources we need to survive.

I’ve been a college principal for just short of 10 years. I became a principal because I wanted to be at the forefront of a sector which has done so much to support social mobility through opening up access to learning. The reality has been depressingly different. In most academic years, I’ve been making cuts, deleting courses, closing departments and offering less opportunities. In most years I’ve been forced into reducing staffing, managing redundancies and offering paltry pay rises. I’ve spent more time trying to find ways of stemming the leaks in college income than looking at widening participation.

We’ve done our best – remarkably successfully – to protect front line teaching. But at what cost? Support staffing has been thinned to the bone. In my previous college I had to get rid of my last two student mental health support workers. Course hours have been trimmed and optional extras ditched. Staff training budgets have been slashed. Ageing equipment has been patched up rather than replaced.

Colleges being left behind

As lecturer pay rates deteriorate – especially in comparison to pay in schools and universities – we have more and more of a problem recruiting teaching staff. It took two years and five attempts to get a plumbing lecturer. Our excellent engineering department relies on several lecturers who have come back from retirement. We lost our head of science to a university; our computer game design specialist to a school. Unable to offer competitive salaries, we are constantly in danger of losing ambitious teachers.

Money, of course, isn’t everything. Most colleges still offer fabulously high-quality courses despite the lack of resources, because of the skill and enthusiasm of our staff. But without adequate funding, the whole fabric begins to deteriorate, slowly but surely, like a house whose owners can’t afford its upkeep and can only paper over the cracks.

I read a newspaper article recently, about the head of a high-profile sixth-form academy who is asking parents to donate an extra £3,000 per year to help the school maintain its high standards. The startling irony? This is a school which already gets £500,000 a year in extra funding from a high street bank! But this headteacher of an inner city school is aspiring to offer something as exceptional as an Eton or Harrow. Independent schools typically ask for £20,000 a year for each pupil. Universities get over £9,000. FE colleges manage on less than £5,000 a year per student.

Palpable anger and frustration

So it’s not surprising the Love Our Colleges campaign is supported by just about everyone in FE. It is quite remarkable and unprecedented to see college principals marching side by side with lecturers, support staff and their trade unions. And the sense of anger and frustration is palpable.

The FE sector is united. Love is not enough. We need a big rise in core funding. A country that works for everyone needs an education system that works for everyone. The campaign is only just starting. It won’t go away.

Andy Forbes is principal of City and Islington College in London