Time you got down to business, says Boles

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Skills minister tells colleges there's no government cash to come

Further education colleges in England should not expect any new government cash and should become more entrepreneurial in raising funds if they want to prosper, the skills minister has warned.

The blunt message from Nick Boles came in his first interview with TES since taking over the post from Matt Hancock in July. Mr Boles told TES that, in future, the "healthiest college" would be one that did not rely on the government for all its income.

Instead, he urged colleges to "embrace" the entrepreneurial freedoms they enjoyed and to boost the number of apprenticeships and traineeships they offered.

He also defended the government's decision to ring-fence education funding for five- to 16-year-olds, and to cut funding for 18-year-olds in education by 17.5 per cent from last month.

"Although I entirely accept it's been very tough for colleges and that they have really been put up against it.nevertheless I think.it's an entirely sensible and logical thing to do to protect funding for school-aged education," he said.

"We are being demanding and we are not giving [colleges] all the money they would like and I'm not going to quarrel with that analysis, but I think it's the right thing to do.

"The truth is a lot of colleges have risen to the challenge and I see no reason why [others can't]."

Mr Boles said colleges had a freedom that most parts of the public sector would envy, and they should use it.

"Schools can't go out and take business from local companies or start devising courses for local employers," he said. "Colleges can do a huge range of stuff: they can borrow money, they can acquire private businesses, they can set up their own trading subsidiaries."

As well as being more entrepreneurial, he suggested that smaller colleges could consider forming groups to share overhead costs or even integrating with other parts of the education system such as schools or university technical colleges.

"I think it is possible for them to thrive even in this demanding environment," he said. "The advantage they have relative to schools is that they have this entrepreneurial freedom and I think they should all embrace it. Over time the healthiest college will be a college that doesn't rely for all of its income on the government.

"Ultimately any college that wants to prosper in the next five years needs to refocus and engineer itself so it can maximize the number of apprenticeships it can be involved in and traineeships, too."

The Association of Colleges said that the funding rate for 16- to 18-year-olds in England was at least 22 per cent less than that of 11- to 16-year-olds and less than half the rate of university students. It is calling for a "once-in-a-generation" review of how education is funded across the age range.

AoC president Richard Atkins said the current funding of pound;4,000 per student was the "absolute minimum" needed to deliver the balanced, rigorous programmes of study demanded by the government.

"Colleges are lean but effective, and highly entrepreneurial; if they had not been, the swingeing cuts made in the past four years would have seen wholesale failure across the sector," he said. He warned that any future consolidation would not be pain free.

The 157 Group of colleges said that its members were entrepreneurial and were currently looking at "more radical" models of investment.

Director Lynne Sedgmore said: "It is pleasing that the new minister is so acknowledging of the good work of colleges. We believe that vital elements of college work will require state funding into the future not to disadvantage those students who are ill-prepared for employability by their previous educational experiences."

But she said the freedom to innovate was being hampered by a funding and accountability system that was too closely linked to qualifications.

University and College Union head of further education Andrew Harden said: "While it is encouraging that all the main parties are starting to recognise the need for higher skills and decent training, they have to understand the pivotal role colleges will play in their delivery.

"The FE sector does not need the wheel reinventing once again. What it needs is consistent steady funding to rise to the challenges we face."

Mr Boles said his "almost complete and total focus" for his remaining seven months as skills minister before the next election was apprenticeships, traineeships and the "fundamental requirement" of teaching everybody English and maths.

`We're free to find new forms of income'

Peter Roberts, principal of Leeds City College, says he agrees with much of what skills minister Nick Boles has to say.

"Colleges have got two options: they can either take the cuts year on year or look at income diversification. I don't think colleges should be taking the direct funding cuts, we have to do something about it."

Colleges must take advantage of their freedoms and adapt their structures to help them find new forms of income, he says.

Among other ideas, Mr Roberts suggests that institutions should have bidding teams scanning the horizon for new pots of money, their boards should include experienced business leaders and they should work in partnership with both private and public sector bodies where possible.

Leeds City College has itself recently appointed a commercial director.

"It's not a profit-making move, it's to offset the cuts from central government, to have income that allows us to keep doing the stuff we should be doing," Mr Roberts says.

"However, it has to be linked to our overall mission and values."

Mr Roberts says colleges must face up to the new world: "We have had to embrace this agenda for a while now; the pressure on funding is not going to go away."

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