Opinion: 'The FE sector can be quietly optimistic for the future'

John Widdowson, president of the Association of Colleges, writes that while the spending cuts could have been worse for FE, the sector still faces challenges

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It will take time to absorb and understand the finer details of the autumn spending statement, but on the face of it the further education sector can breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, we still have to understand where savings will be made, and we know there will be major financial challenges for the sector, but we certainly won’t be facing the large double-digit cuts implied in the summer.

Amongst his other surprise announcements, the chancellor promised that the core funding rate in cash terms for 16- to 19-year-olds will remain fixed for the next four years. Although there will be "targeted savings" from funding outside of this, it is unclear as yet where they will be. The adult skills budget is also protected in cash terms which will go some way to saving the training which provides skills for the workforce. Alongside this, sixth-form colleges can now choose to become academies, possibly by joining multi-academy trusts, thus avoiding paying VAT. I am pleased that in this way sixth-form colleges can decide their own future.

Unsurprisingly, the government once again signalled that its priority is apprenticeships. George Osborne’s announcement of the 0.5 per cent levy for payrolls over £3 million will raise £2.7 billion a year in 2017-18. This will not only ease the pressure for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but also will go some way to help colleges provide high-quality training for many more apprentices.

While this step is something the Association of Colleges has been campaigning for, and it is a positive step, this can only be part of the wider work the government must do if it is to reach its self-imposed 3 million apprenticeships target in this Parliament. Apprenticeships are a job with training – a fact that the government must remember. It needs to keep encouraging employers to generate these roles across their businesses. At the same time, it must ensure that the quality of the apprenticeships and the training provided is even more important than the quantity.

On the whole though, the sector can be quietly optimistic for the future. The government seems to have taken on board the lobbying of ministers, civil servants, our local MPs and the media that we have all done together as a sector, and it is finally recognising the importance of the further education sector.

Moving forwards, colleges are approaching a period of change and we need to continue to work together to press for recognition that a thriving college sector is essential for future economic success. We will work with employers to demonstrate that the best investment they can make is in training their workforce, not just in the skills needed immediately but in the skills of the future. We will encourage individuals to make the same investment in their own skills and knowledge, using loans or other sources of funding to take responsibility for their own future, with choice and opportunity. And we will continue to urge the government to look upon colleges as an investment in our most important asset – a skilled and productive population to meet its aspiration of “low tax, low welfare, high pay”, as George Osborne said in his autumn statement. Without a successful college sector, the task of rebuilding our economy will be harder, if not impossible.

A powerful economy needs powerful colleges.

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