The frenzied activities associated with the end of an academic year have been overshadowed at Tower Hamlets College as staff, students and the community come to terms with difficult decisions that have to be made to secure the college's future. In the past few weeks, the college has faced strike action, with unions defending their members and expressing outrage over the need for redundancies.
The challenges facing the college include a large budget deficit, the need to improve success rates, a cut in student numbers - all within a difficult economic climate. The Machinery of Government agenda, a shift in recruitment towards priority targets, and a growing emphasis on best-value commissioning add further strain.
These challenges aren't unique to Tower Hamlets College and, as highlighted in FE Focus (July 17), they are being addressed by senior managers and corporation boards across the sector. Colleges are finding that with the recession biting and future funding looking bleak, now is the time to get fit for the future. Further education has consistently demonstrated its ability to rise to a challenge, meeting government priorities, responding to the latest policy initiative while balancing these with the needs of the local community and economy.
As a community-focused London college, Tower Hamlets has fought hard to maintain the provision our community needs. A vital aspect of its curriculum is English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol), and this has meant the costs of unfunded courses have been covered from the college's budgets and reserves.
But will simply continuing with the same strategy and hoping to weather the storm for the next few years be enough? At a time of funding cuts, the college can no longer afford to provide unfunded courses, and it is not sustainable. More importantly, this strategy will reduce funding for other areas, which will not be in the interest of all the students the college serves.
Colleges such as Tower Hamlets must be mindful of the wider community and the critical role they have to play in enabling employers to upskill their workforce, supporting social inclusion and community cohesion, preparing people of all ages for further study and higher education, and improving the employability of young people - potentially the "lost generation".
Through their hard work and commitment, staff at the college have responded and addressed the immediate challenges and paved the way for it to continue to deliver high-quality education for the entire community into the future. While, regrettably, some redundancies have had to be made, overall significantly fewer staff than anticipated have been affected. Through partnership work and additional project funding, much needed Esol places have also been added back.
As FE leaders, we have to be confident in the decisions we take, which in the short term may be seen as unpopular by some. We must prepare our institutions not only to survive, but thrive in this economic climate. Colleges that remain responsive, innovative and financially strong can deliver those all-important skills that will help drive our economy forward and out of recession.
Michael Farley, Principal of Tower Hamlets College, east London.