FE prepares to bite the bullet as its fiscal day of destiny draws near
Never has a date given people so much to dread. Next Wednesday, October 20, chancellor George Osborne will announce how much each Government department has agreed to cut their budgets.
It is the most important spending announcement for decades. The minimum being asked for by the Treasury is 25 per cent, while some departments are drawing up plans for cuts of 40 per cent.
It is easy to throw percentage points around, so it is worth spelling out what 40 per cent actually means in real terms - pound;400 in every pound;1,000. The levels of savings being asked for are extraordinary.
The Government argues that these are extraordinary times, with the country's debt at eye-watering levels. In the last financial year, the public deficit was pound;155 billion.
The argument is that everyone will feel the pinch, with cuts extending right across the board, and that this will foster some "we're all in this together" spirit.
It is not an easy idea to sell, as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg discovered at the Lib Dems' annual conference when he was shouted down by party members.
Quangos, which many agree should be cut, are first in the firing line: recent leaks calculate that at least 180 will go in the cull, with the Department for Education earmarking the Teachers TV board and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, among others, for abolition.
But getting rid of quangos and their (in some cases) six figure-salary bosses will not make a huge impact impact on debts of pound;86 billion - the amount by which Mr Osborne says he wants to reduce the deficit by March 2016. This is the so-called "structural deficit" - which stays with us even when the economy recovers from recession - on which the Government is having to spend billions of pounds to service interest repayments.
It says around pound;22 billion of this financial hole will be plugged by tax hikes, but the remainder will be covered by spending cuts.
Education - including FE - accounts for the third-largest area of Government spending, behind "social protection", which includes state benefits and so on, and health. While the Government pledged to exclude health from cuts, education has not been afforded the same protection.
For FE, the proposed figures are grim. Many colleges are bracing themselves for cuts of 30 per cent. This could mean around 80,000 job losses and a reduction of up to 800,000 places.
The Association of Colleges calculates that funding for colleges will fall by pound;300-400 million each year until 2014. Assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt has already issued dire warnings of what is in store. "It's going to be bad," he said. "We'll be left with provision for apprenticeships, basic skills, students with learning difficulties and some token community learning."
Many are dismayed that one of the key drivers in helping fuel economic recovery - post-16 education - is set to suffer most.
Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), says: "FE is a very big engine for the economic recovery and building up skills."
She admits that her members are extremely apprehensive about what is in store. "There is a nervous anxiety," she admits. "There is almost a sense of disbelief. There will be more part-time teachers and trainers as a result of this."
The IfL believes that when the cuts are announced next week, those who run colleges should do everything in their power to protect frontline staff. "If you took out teachers and trainers, then what is the point of an FE college?" says Ms Fazaeli.
So where exactly does she think cuts should be made ?
The institute says its members have consistently said they are being over- managed and that there is too much red tape. It is here, says the IfL, that cuts should first be made.
"There are concerns about the balance between managers and teachers," Ms Fazaeli says. "Teachers and trainers don't need layers of managers micromanaging them."
Indeed, micromanagement and the quantity of paperwork are the most common complaints among FE lecturers.
"You have got a professional workforce who do not need much management; what they need is management support," she says.
If all this sounds slightly "them and us", the managers are playing the role of the innocent victim rather well.
"We would oppose all cuts," says Peter Pendle, chief executive of the Association of Managers in Education. "We can't pick and choose cuts, but we wouldn't want to see cuts from frontline services."
But nor does he want more managers taken out of the system. "There has been a huge thinning out since the early 1990s," he says. "There aren't any more layers to take off," he says.
Managers, he argues, are more than just the paper-shufflers and bureaucrats of popular myth. "There's always this assumption that managers don't do any work," he says. "Very often, they teach as well. A consequence of the cuts is that they have a serious impact on institutions' ability to manage their day-to-day affairs."
According to Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK), the sector body that monitors the FE workforce, the proportion of staff at FE colleges in England remained constant between 2006 and 2009, the year when the last set of data was produced.
There were, in fact, proportionally more managers and teachers at FE colleges in 2008-09 than in 2006-07. It was the number of support staff as a percentage of overall numbers that went down (see box).
LLUK believes that FE colleges have so far managed to avoid much of the brunt of recession. Using data supplied by last year's National Employer Skills Survey, it said employers reported that 14 per cent of them had cut staff numbers.
"This was considerably less than the national average of 24 per cent," it added. In addition, "67 per cent of FE colleges reported staffing levels as staying the same while 15 per cent (about one in seven) reported an increase in the number of people employed". In other words, more than 80 per cent had not seen staffing levels fall.
LLUK's figures for 2009-10 will be published next March, but Ms Fazaeli expects them to be very different. "We are already hearing of cuts and teachers and trainers' skills are valuable elsewhere," she says. Ms Fazaeli predicts an influx of teachers to the private sector, meaning their skills are being retained - but only for people who can pay for them.
This drift into the private sector is a major concern for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, which represents staff at all levels.
Norman Crowther, the union's national official for post-16 education, says: "The impact of cuts on adult learning means that having a high level of cuts in this sector makes absolutely no sense."
Again, he returns to the argument that college principals and government officials will be hearing many more times of in the coming weeks - if you want the economy to recover, get people trained up in the right skills.
But Mr Crowther says there is more to it than that. "An economic recovery is one thing, but to ignore the primary social goods of education and training in the search for the one economic good makes no sense," he says.
"Society is about enabling and empowering people, not aiming to simply balance the books."
Except right now, it is. Because the Government says so.