The next 12 months will be "critical" to the future of colleges in England as principals attempt to persuade politicians of their vital role in the country's economic recovery, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned.
College leaders will need to deal with months of "uncertainty" for the sector, both before and after the general election, and will have to face the risk of further budget cuts, according to AoC chief executive Martin Doel.
"The five months up to the general election will be critical for colleges, their students and the FE system as a whole; so too will the following six months, when the incoming government, of whatever hue or form, puts together its programme," he writes today on the TES website.
Mr Doel warns that the Department for Education could face a "black hole" in its budget when the "demographic bulge" of primary school pupils makes its way through to the more expensive secondary phase. "This black hole cannot and must not be filled in through further plundering of funding for 16- to 18-year-olds," he adds.
The AoC claims that students aged 16-18 in English education already receive an average of 22 per cent less funding than those aged 5-16.
The organisation will spend the next five months increasing the pressure on politicians of all parties to commit to a "once-in-a-generation" review of education funding after the election. "If we don't, we risk having a completely imbalanced system where investment in early years is wasted by a failure to complete the job," Mr Doel writes.
He says the UK's economic recovery depends on a skilled workforce, which is the "core territory" of further education colleges who each work with an average of 600 employers.
Economic studies show that colleges generate a return of pound;2.90 for every pound;1 invested. "Far from being in any sense a problem, colleges are the solution to the need to generate a recovery that is sustainable and the benefits of which are widely shared," Mr Doel continues. "They are already doing this despite the creaking system within which they work and underinvestment relative to some other sectors."
His comments come after Sarah Robinson, the newly elected chair of the 157 Group and principal of Stoke-on-Trent college, told TES that FE colleges in England were a source of "untapped potential and opportunity" and should have a lead role in developing skills. Like the AoC, the 157 Group also plans to pressure politicians to keep FE policy centre stage.
Peter Roberts, principal of Leeds City College, the third largest FE college in the UK, agreed that 2015 was "critical".
"I have been in FE since 1983, and I think this year is perhaps going to be the one when the critical importance of the sector will be under the spotlight like never before," he said.
"For me, the issue is how important the sector is perceived to be by national politicians. There are a number of challenges facing us, and we know there won't be any improvements to funding for the next two years. It's going to be very difficult for us to deliver when funding has been so significantly cut."
Ministers have placed increasing demands on the FE sector in recent years: the sector has been asked to boost the number of apprenticeships, introduce new initiatives such as traineeships, and improve English and maths skills among 16- to 19-year-olds. At the same time, it has been held more closely to account by measures such as the introduction of an FE commissioner.
Skills minister Nick Boles recently admitted to being "demanding" of colleges, but said they enjoyed freedoms that most parts of the public sector would envy.
Jatinder Sharma, principal and chief executive of Walsall College, who was appointed OBE in the New Year's Honours List for his services to FE, warned that colleges were in for an "incredibly turbulent time".
"I think we have only just seen the start of the funding cuts in terms of their scope and reach," he said, adding that many colleges faced an "extremely vulnerable" financial future.
But he insisted there were "huge opportunities" for colleges that could "embrace" the challenges. "If they plan carefully and are proactive and nimble enough to be flexible with their offer, I think they can navigate through the difficulties," he said.