Colleges should recruit members of the House of Lords to join their governing bodies to raise the political profile of the sector, Baroness Wolf has suggested.
Speaking at the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) winter symposium today, Baroness Wolf, the Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at Kings College London and a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords, said the FE sector had more work to do to influence policymakers.
Baroness Wolf, the author of the seminal 2011 Wolf Report on vocational education, said that encouraging peers to join the governing boards of their local colleges could help.
She told guests at the FETL event at the House of Commons: "Can I make a setting up the future suggestion to everyone here from a college? Get someone from the House of Lords on your board of governors. That would make a big difference."
Baroness Wolf used her keynote speech to encourage FE leaders to carry on fighting for the sector in political spheres.
When pointing to the promises made by all of the major political parties for FE in the general election campaign, she said: "We can’t assume that the battle is won. This is going to be five, 10, 15 years of both redressing the fiscal balance and making good policy.
"I want to encourage you all to the barricades to ensure that not only is more money spent on FE, but that it’s spent in a sensible way."
Baroness Wolf also reflected on the Augar review, for which she was a panel member. She said her fellow members felt that "the nature of the post-18 'no-system' was seriously and deeply out of kilter" and that FE had been neglected, "not just in the sense of being underfunded but not being taken seriously and being lumbered with a number of structures and requirements that led to an inability to respond in labour markets, and a huge amount of money going on pointless administration".
She spoke of a "national obsession" with higher education that dominated media coverage of the Augar Review.
But James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation, argued that the obsession was from members of the media, politicians and policymakers, not the general public.
The future of skills devolution
The impact of skills devolution was also discussed at the event. In March 2019, £630 million of the adult education budget was passed to seven mayoral areas across England, as part of the first wave of skills devolution.
Mr Kirkup said that while AEB devolution was in principal a sensible policy, it had been a recipe for "blame-shifting and confusion".
He said: "The way in which it’s been done – only going to... places who have a mayoral authority, it’s only half the budget, and come with a lot of statutory strings attached, it’s not real devolution. It’s a recipe for blame-shifting, confusion.
"Yes, we should look at proper devolution of funding, but do it properly. AEB has been done in such a piecemeal messy fashion."
Lesley Davies, principal of Trafford College, said that the nine colleges in the devolved Greater Manchester area look at the skills needs and set their strategies accordingly.
"If each college had a different policy, how would that work in reality to deliver?...There needs to be that collaboration at a local level with your local authority and combined local authority to serve local need. If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job."
Kirstie Donnelly, group managing director at the City & Guilds Group, said devolution had to be considered as part of the broader skills ecosystem.
She said: "How do we really start to think about what is needed by those employers, communities, and then how are you able to forge your own destiny and how you respond to it? We’ve lost some of that in FE, it should have that back. But we've got to think, what are we trying to create in this skills ecosystem? And then think about where you can flow down the local regional powers to do what you need to do in that system.
"It really upsets me that we aren’t doing enough [adult education]. We’ve got over a million 50+ [people] who want to be in work but they haven’t got the skills, how tragic is that? And actually just some directed funding – sensibly allocated, regionally – all of a sudden you can shift the balance on that."