Stop asking colleges to put plasters over gaping wounds

The latest FE research report evidences the stark reality of funding cuts – let's hope the government pays attention

David Hughes

'Plasters over gaping wounds': David Hughes on FE funding cuts

While the meaning of life, the universe and everything may well be 42 (as Douglas Adams informs us), we found out last week that the meaning of college viability is 13. In a research report for the Department for Education, "Costs and cost drivers in the further education sector", it was revealed that if a general FE college could maintain class sizes of at least 13, then financial viability was possible. Presumably, this is a bit like a baker’s dozen – a retention rate of 92 per cent getting you to the dozen.

Background: What is the cost of good education?

News: £26K FE teaching bursaries announced in £24m package

FE commissioner: Warrington and Vale College 'very weak financially'

It’s a fascinating read – the FE research report, that is – and it includes an extremely positive endorsement of college governance and leadership  and the staff who deliver against the odds. The standout statement, in a 177-page, heavily evidenced report is that:

"Specifically, there is nothing to suggest that any financial challenges that our providers may be experiencing are due to poor planning, budgeting and/or monitoring of their provision."

A 'price minus' activity 

Some of us, of course, have been saying this for years; we understand the value of colleges and just how hard they work. But this is different, with impartial research backing up what we know. And we know that the Treasury loves evidence, so this can only help with the case for fair funding.

The report also offers insight into how colleges manage within their budgets. They take what the report calls a “price minus” activity: "In other words, institutions start by calculating the income they will receive for delivering the programmes and then specify the resources for the programmes accordingly." 

This is important and relates to the class size average minimum needed of 13: there is no educational or logistical basis for 13. It’s simply the result of squeezing as many efficiencies as possible from the human and physical resources, looking at income and reaching a break-even point.

This is where the report offers important evidence, because we have struggled to explain the impact compellingly enough to secure the resources required. Too much of the focus in recent years has been on supposedly deficient, ineffective or even negligent governance and leadership. And too much of this has been aimed at individuals leading colleges in the most challenging of circumstances. I hope that this report rebalances that focus and leads to strengthened support for leaders. If financial viability is a systemic challenge, then why not support leaders to be able to deal with it?

Even in an appropriately dispassionate report, it’s clear that there is an underlying respect for the leadership of colleges and for the staff who work in them. In fact, the report provides hard evidence to back Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s assertions that “real-term cuts to further education funding are affecting the sustainability and quality of that provision”.

What is patently clear from the report is that taking a “price minus” approach relies heavily on the goodwill and dedication of everyone involved, with a significant impact on the college, staff, students and prospective students. For many colleges, cuts to capital expenditure, IT and equipment budgets are leading to deteriorating buildings, out-of-date IT and obsolete kit. This the sort of impact that can be lived with in the short to medium term but which becomes untenable for any longer period of time.

The impact on staff and students

I’ve written many times on the impact on staff – higher workload, redundancies, low pay, less CPD and more stress. The report provides the evidence for this, showing how this is making recruitment and retention tougher than ever before. For students, the impact is also clear and worrying: fewer hours, less course content, fewer courses to choose from, group sizes increasing and inadequate learner support, particularly for health and wellbeing. It’s not a great picture.

For the communities they serve, the cuts have led to whole curriculum areas being cut, reduced enrichment opportunities and restricted college opening hours. In particular, adults have far fewer opportunities to learn than a decade ago. All good for financial viability, but not great for the government’s agenda for reaching out to "left-behind people and places".

The new government should read this report with interest. There was strong support from all parties in the election for colleges as vital civic institutions, able to reach out to the communities they serve, supporting productivity and helping young people and adults get on in work and life. This is all well and good with the right resources, but please don’t ask each college leader to continue sticking plasters over gaping wounds. They are good leaders, but even they cannot make that work for long.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges. He tweets @AoCDavidH

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