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'As a sector, we should oppose every individual cut which is unreasonable'

Ben Nicholls, head of policy and communications at Newham College in London, writes:

In its excellent manifesto, published at the end of last year, the 157 Group called for a “stable" political landscape so that colleges could focus on their business without “unnecessary distractions”. In its polite way, the manifesto joined other calls for less political interference in education – calls supported by international best practice. I’ll never forget the Finnish headteacher who, when asked why his education system was so admired, simply said that they didn’t muck around with it like we did with ours.

There is a degree of irony, therefore, in that a recent government decision to change nothing was one of the few times when change might have been welcome. Following a consultation which, admittedly, resulted in very few responses, it has been announced that no changes to the allocation of the 16-19 bursary programme will be forthcoming. The rationale for this – that “some institutions would see their 16-19 bursary allocation increase by several hundred per cent, while others would lose almost all of their allocation” is by itself entirely fair. At a time when college budgets are being attacked from other directions, any degree of stability should perhaps be welcomed. However, the very purpose of the scheme – to support the education and participation of the most vulnerable – inevitably means that some institutions will gain more from the funding pot than others.

The consultation document suggests that changes would have increased volatility in the sector, and so the motivation again seems admirable – were it not that a raft of other funding cuts have led to a more volatile situation than ever before. The way to increase stability would be to maintain core funding for 18-year-olds – the majority of whom, at my college, are studying with us for the first time – at the same level as their 17-year-old peers; or to increase the capital pot for colleges in a meaningful way; or to avoid opening free schools at a cost of many millions where expanding FE provision could meet the same goals more effectively; or not to cut thousands of valuable adult qualifications which, as well as increasing participation, provide colleges with core, sustained funding.

Whilst the bursary programme is welcome in its nature (although at significantly reduced size to the EMA it replaced), it cannot and should not be asked to replace core funding, which is being stripped to a level where quality is suffering dramatically. Indeed, funding is being pared to such an extent that, as 157’s Andy Gannon suggested recently, it’s time to make the principles clear.

Loans are now part of the furniture for HE and increasingly for the more advanced adult qualifications. Some might argue that, by their very labels, "further" and "higher" education aren’t universally aimed or accessible, and that requiring some level of personal financial involvement, such as through loans, is fair enough. But with FE, this simply isn’t the case. Whilst many FE students might be into post-compulsory education based on their age alone, their prior attainment or personal circumstances betray that blanket notion. For many, FE is not only general or basic education, but essential education, the only route through which they stand a hope of employment. In effect, therefore, cuts to (and a normalisation of loans for) such education is tantamount to cutting (by the same levels, or bringing in loans for) primary and secondary education too.

If education really is at the heart of a civilised society, and if we really consider it a basic human right, then there is little further that FE funding can be cut (or translated into loans) without those very principles being called into stark question. If a further mark of civilised society is how we treat the most vulnerable, we’re already in trouble – for, as report after report makes clear, it is FE which is working with those very people and those people against whom funding cuts discriminate. So whilst reforms to the 16-19 bursary scheme do need to come about (as the government acknowledges), they are but the latest in a series of decisions which bring a new, ethical element into the frame. As a sector, we should oppose every individual cut which is unreasonable and will effect delivery and quality – but, more broadly, it’s time to start making the case for basic principles too, because they’re in danger of getting as ripped apart as the budget sheets. 

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