Savings are sure to top the agenda for whichever party or parties form the next government. But beyond this there are key, and sometimes substantial, differences between the three main political camps when it comes to FE and skills.
The Labour party, based on the direction of travel of the Government in recent years, favours a hands-on approach. It looks to steer and pump- prime the system to deliver people with the skills needed to grow the economy and, latterly, to offer those who lost their jobs in the recession a chance of finding new work through retraining.
A corollary of its central control is, perhaps, that the Government has driven FE up the political agenda. But while a Labour government promises greater autonomy for FE providers, is it ever going to loosen its control over a system that it sees as central to its employment and economic strategies?
The Conservatives, on the other hand, advocate small government and a Further Education Funding Council. This would exist to allocate cash, leaving the business of planning and delivering education and training to autonomous providers working with students and employers.
And the party that brought colleges incorporation would take things a stage further, this time by promoting private sector-run institutions. Taken together, the lure of greater freedom may entice many in FE who complain of government micro-management. The Tories have warmed to vocational education but how much of this is a reaction to the perceived over-expansion of higher education?
The Lib Dems have long been sold on further and vocational education and their proposal for a joint adult skills and higher education funding body displays a subtlety of understanding about the sector. The party also has commitments to end the disparities in funding between FE and schools. But with adult FE hitched to HE and under-18 FE wedded to schools, where does the fault line leave FE providers? The choice is yours.
- Everyone aged 18 to 24 to be guaranteed a job, training or work experience place if they are unemployed for more than six months.
- A guaranteed place in education or training for all 16- and 17-year-olds by September and January of each year.
- Individual skills accounts for all students from this year.
- An ambition of creating 500,000 apprenticeship starts a year across the UK by 2020.
- An ambition of creating a new "technician class".
- Seventy-five per cent of people should have been to university or completed an advanced apprenticeship or equivalent technician-level qualification by the age of 30.
- Some 35,000 more advanced apprenticeships will be made available over the next two years.
- Legislate to raise the education and training leaving age to 18 by 2015.
- University technical colleges (UTCs) for 14- to 19-year-olds.
- Committed to keeping Train to Gain.
- Likely to persist with split between schools, under the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), and colleges and universities, under the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).
- Likely to retain the new Skills Funding Agency (SFA) and Young People's Learning Agency (YPLA).
- More autonomy for FE providers, with additional freedoms for those judged outstanding, and a national "traffic light" system allowing students to rate and choose providers.
- Have promised to cut bureaucracy by removing more than 30 publicly funded skills bodies by 2012.
A welcome underlying theme is the attempt to blur the lines between academic and vocational education. Labour wants to create qualifications designed to allow progression to higher education for those who start on a vocational path. The ambition for three-quarters of under 30s to attend university or college is welcome, as demographic change will mean fewer younger students in the next few years and funding pressures have led to severe cuts in adult education. The raising of the compulsory leaving age to 18 in 2015 will also help to balance the fall in rolls. The creation of a "technician class" seemingly shifts some of the Government's focus away from degrees towards further and vocational education, and the focus on apprenticeships is also good for FE. The Labour party manifesto also says that priority in the expansion of higher education student places will be given to foundation degrees and part-time study, which ought to benefit colleges.
Questions persist over the value for money of the billion-pound Train to Gain scheme and whether it is just subsidising training that employers would have done. And the splitting of education between the DCSF and BIS still divides those in further education, with many feeling that schools will continue to get a far better deal than FE will out of Lord Mandelson's empire. Similarly, the decision to split the funding and planning of FE and training between local authorities, the SFA and YPLA is seen as overly complex. UTCs, while broadly welcomed, are funded by the DCSF and are effectively an extension of the academies programme. Concerns remain that more apprentices should actually be employed by businesses before going to college rather than being enrolled and then sent into the workplace. Raising the leaving age to 18 may also change the nature of FE's students from volunteers to conscripts.
- The new FE funding system to be scrapped and replaced with a streamlined body called the Further Education Funding Council for England (FEFCE).
- Colleges to be given the freedom to plan their provision as they choose, in line with an agreed strategic plan.
- Some pound;775 million to be diverted from Train to Gain into apprenticeships to create an extra 100,000 apprentices a year and fully fund 77,000 adult apprentices who are currently part-funded.
- A pound;100 million fund to be created to provide targeted help for under-25s who are out of work, education or training.
- Small- and medium-sized businesses encouraged to hire apprentices with a pound;2,000 bonus for each apprenticeship.
- Will make it easier for employers to offer apprenticeships by instituting direct payments, simplified inspection regimes, cutting paperwork and making more financial support available upfront.
- A careers adviser to be appointed for every school and college in the country at a cost of pound;180 million.
- A new pound;100 million all-age careers service and a pound;5 million internet- based skills-matching service will be created to help people access information about jobs, training and apprenticeships.
- The number of bodies with oversight of the FE system to be cut so colleges and training providers are only accountable to one inspection body, one audit body and one improvement body.
- New institutions to be encouraged to apply for public funding, including private- or voluntary-sector providers running failed colleges, with the assets held in a trust.
- Some pound;100 million to be invested in an adult community learning fund, targeting groups such as parents looking to return to work in particular.
The main Tory pitch is increased freedom, with far less central accountability and providers setting a broad strategic plan that they implement according to local conditions. The FEFCE will be expected to operate on a far leaner budget, so more money should reach frontline services. Greater competition is intended to supplant central accountability systems, allowing large, successful colleges and training providers to be able to dominate their markets and grow more rapidly. Apprenticeships have some of the best evidence for their effectiveness of all vocational qualifications, and the Tories' commitment to them is impressive, funding large increases in numbers and attempting to tackle some of the obstacles to growth among employers. The party's proposals are also strong on information, advice and guidance, with an all-ages careers service that holds out the prospect of more cohesive support throughout an individual's life, as well as extra funding for professional advice in schools and colleges.
In committing themselves to replacing a funding system just months after it has launched, the Conservatives risk creating even more disruption. The details are also unclear on some points: a system to trade allocations was dropped after concerns from providers, but what will replace it? It will take time to pass new legislation and implement it, raising the possibility of a "lame duck" system dragging on and preventing effective planning. A more free-market approach is also inherently disruptive and smaller providers may suffer in the competition for increasingly scarce resources. If failing colleges are opened up to profit-making companies it could kick off a battle with unions over privatisation. Train to Gain may be "refocused" rather than scrapped, but taking pound;775 million out for apprenticeships could be the death of it. Because apprenticeships are more expensive than NVQs, inevitably fewer people will be reached. And the state of the job market is a challenge to an FE strategy focused on apprenticeships. With employers reluctant to hire, it may mean the winners are older people already in work, rather than young people looking for a start in life.
- The raising of the education leaving age to be abandoned, with an entitlement for two more years of education to be taken at any time to be offered instead.
- The funding gap between schools and colleges to be closed immediately, and other inequalities between the two also ended.
- Education maintenance allowance bonuses to be abolished, recouping pound;100 million to pay for fair funding.
- A new general diploma for 14-year-olds to be created incorporating elements from apprenticeships, vocational courses and academic studies.
- Legislate to give all students the chance to attend college or a work- based learning provider instead of school at 14.
- A single funding council for adult FE and HE to be created - dubbed the Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education (CASHE). Funding for 16-19 is likely to remain with local authorities.
- Some 88,000 adult apprenticeships to be fully funded as part of economic stimulus and job creation plans - but the extra cash could be taken back out of FE.
- Train to Gain to be reformed, scrapping fees for all adults taking their first level 3 qualification and extending the current entitlement which applies to under-25s.
- Some 15,000 more foundation degrees to be funded.
- Literacy and numeracy courses to be made compulsory for people staying in education who have not reached the expected level by 16.
- Ensure local authorities commission a truly independent advice service informed by the needs of local employers.
The Lib Dems are the only party to commit to abolishing the funding gap between schools and FE immediately (Labour has kept it as a distant long- term goal). Removing the threat of criminalising teenagers who do not stay in education is archetypically liberal: it is surely more attractive for education to be a choice rather than an imposition. Allowing all students to attend college at 14 also extends choice, is likely to help re-engage some students who have lost interest and makes a diploma incorporating vocational learning more realistic. A single funding body for adult skills and HE is a welcome signifier of how the Lib Dems see the status of skills on a par with elite academic education. It may even point the way to equalising funding and support, with grants and loans on offer to adult FE students - but a two-tier system could persist even with one body.
The headline pledge of equal funding in schools and colleges will be hard to pay for at a time when funding rates are heading downwards. The pound;100 million saved from education maintenance allowance bonuses would only go a fraction of the way. And scrapping bonuses could hit some poor families hard: some already struggle to get by on the payments available. Proposals for a general diploma will prompt feelings of deja vu: they resurrect the Tomlinson report from 2004. But while that was praised for its vision, its proposals were complex and lacked public support. And while taking compulsion out of raising the leaving age is in keeping with the party's principles, it leaves it with a much harder task in reducing the numbers out of work, training or education.