In an election expected to be dominated by Brexit alone, we seem to be in a highly unusual game of who can promise to spend more on (mainly) domestic policy issues. After a decade of painful austerity, the contrast with previous elections is profound and poses challenges for those of us trying to influence party manifestoes. If spending promises are flying around then we definitely want some to land in colleges, but we also want to promote long-term policies which will benefit students, employers, communities and colleges alike.
The Association of Colleges’ proposals for the next government, set out in its manifesto, launched last week, are a powerful mixture of spending commitments and policy asks. The proposals build on the modest additional funding announced in August, recently confirmed by Department for Education, for 16-18 funding in the academic year 2020-21. That funding announcement, and the response from other political parties and commentators, showed that we have won the central argument of our #LoveOurColleges campaign. Colleges are a priority for funding across the political spectrum, and for good reason, given the 30 per cent overall funding cut they have had to cope with.
Our manifesto asks for increased funding in four vital areas. Firstly, for young people; to increase the funding per student to allow for more hours, better student support, enrichment, pay increases for staff and a margin for colleges to invest in infrastructure. Secondly, for adult education and training; to support more people to get the training and apprenticeships they need in a rapidly changing labour market. Thirdly, for colleges to be supported with capital investment for improved facilities, repurposed buildings, new kit and upgraded technology. Finally, we argue for more funding for student support to help with travel, childcare and living costs whilst studying.
Need to know: GCSE resits and funding: the Lib Dems' election pledges
Opinion: 5 ways to improve lifelong learning
A thriving college in every community?
None of those are new and nobody reading this will be very surprised by them. However, that doesn’t make them less important or less valid; we have, after all, been arguing for those areas of investment over recent years. The funding announced in September was a first step to achieving them, in what has felt like a breakthrough into a more realistic set of discussions with all main parties.
If the 2010s were the decade of death by a thousand cuts for colleges, the 2020s needs to be the decade that delivers a thriving college in every community. To achieve that, the next government will need to deliver more than just increased investment, which is where our first manifesto proposal comes in. Because as well as seeking the investment, we are asking the next government to partner with colleges and view them as a vital part of the national infrastructure.
The past decade was not just about funding cuts for colleges, it was also a decade of neglect and of colleges being overlooked. Sure, there have been plenty of policy initiatives and changes, but all done to colleges rather than with them and all failing to recognise the unique place in our society and in our education system that colleges inhabit. Of course, the neglect in understanding and appreciation explains how politicians have been able to make the severe funding cuts in the first place. The lack of investment and financial stress has then been used against colleges for not being good enough. Kafka would have loved it.
For colleges to really thrive, government will need to partner with colleges rather than simply "buy" services from them. Too much of current policy is institution-blind, forcing colleges to compete with each other and with other providers in a pseudo-market and on an uneven playing field. Current regulation and funding is confused and places a heavy bureaucratic burden on colleges, whilst severely restricting their operations, innovation and ability to plan for the long term. Our manifesto asks for this to change, with a new regulatory regime designed to support colleges as partners and a new protected title to give more prominence to colleges as vital national infrastructure organisations.
I’m optimistic about the 2020s. Austerity is now a failed policy of the past. Colleges are understood better. The public wants more public investment and for everyone to benefit from it. Colleges deliver that – a comprehensive local offer meeting the broadest set of needs from the widest spread of people and communities.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.
Tes is media partner for the AoC Annual Conference, which takes place on November 19-20 at the ICC, Birmingham. For more information, visit the conference website.