There is much to be welcomed in the chancellor’s spending review, and funnily enough one of the best things is that what he’s given today is consistent with what’s been promised for some months.
FE colleges, like businesses, benefit from certainty, which allows them to plan for the future. Surprises are lovely (sometimes), but the fact that so many of yesterday's announcements had already been trailed by the prime minister and the education secretary actually makes it easier to maximise their value.
Increased funding through Restart, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, Kickstart etc is obviously welcome and will be much needed in a post-Covid world where jobs are going to be in short supply and up-to-date skills will be essential to secure them. One plea I would make to government is that when the fine detail of all of these funding streams is decided, it allows for as much local flexibility as possible.
An example of where the current situation could be improved is with the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Understandably, the funding is focused on areas like IT, construction and engineering where national skills gaps are yawning. However, the exclusion of 29 subject areas including hospitality, law and administration is worrying for two reasons.
Firstly, skills gaps are not uniform across the country. Targeting funding is surely best done locally where the needs can be best assessed.
Spending review: Chancellor announces new funding for skills
Secondly, many of the skills learned in the excluded disciplines are valuable and transferable to a broad range of job roles. For example, there are plenty of people who have studied performing arts or social sciences (both excluded) who have gone on to have exceptional careers in entirely unrelated areas, but are still using those skills they learned at college or university.
One announcement from the chancellor that intrigues me is the £4 billion Levelling Up fund. Colleges are at the heart of their communities and, in that civic role, Milton Keynes College is closely involved with the city council and a host of local businesses, charities and others in backing a bid for a Town Deal for Bletchley and Fenny Stratford. Our new South Central Institute of Technology (SCIoT) will be located directly opposite Bletchley railway station, which is undergoing a complete overhaul.
Currently, the main entrance will be on the east side of the station, away from the SCIoT and from the Bletchley Park heritage site. Might this be an opportunity to access some funds to create a western entrance, too, dramatically altering the perception of the town to visitors and broadening horizons? My point is that access to skills is not just about classrooms and placements, it’s about access via physical transport links and even about potential students being inspired by what they see when they step off a train.
Finally, the announcement of £1.5 billion for rebuilding tired college buildings is most welcome, and no doubt there will be many a bid submitted for that money. Milton Keynes College’s Chaffron Way campus was built in the 1980s and no doubt principals up and down the land will, like me, have a list of much-needed improvements just waiting for the cash to pay for them.
Dr Julie Mills OBE is group principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College