With rumours flying of up to 40 per cent cuts to FE funding before the comprehensive spending review (CSR), the reality offered somewhat of a reprieve for the sector.
Everyone may have breathed a sigh of relief, but it’s important for colleges and training providers to think of this as a period of breathing space, rather than a sign to continue on as normal.
Hot on the heels of the CSR, skills minister Nick Boles sent letters to every college head urging them to “diversify” and be less reliant on government funding to ensure they “remain sustainable into the future”.
It’s pretty clear that the days of a government-funded post-19 education sector are well and truly over. It is time to regroup and radically rethink how colleges structure and fund themselves in the future.
So what should the savvy college leadership team be considering to ensure their institution is ready to face this new reality?
Mr Boles made it very clear at the Association of Colleges’ annual conference in November that apprenticeships should be a bedrock for every college and private training provider’s offer – particularly pertinent for colleges, which currently only claim 37 per cent of the apprenticeships market.
With the apprenticeship levy expected to generate £11.6 billion over the next five years, this is an area that will see significant growth. My advice: establish an apprenticeship offer, if you haven’t already.
Even if your institution does have a strong apprenticeship offer, there are still hurdles ahead. From April 2017, the regular flow of government funding for apprenticeships will effectively be switched off by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). It is therefore essential that FE colleges start building relationships with local employers now, as they will hold the purse strings.
Those providers that get out there to forge relationships, and demonstrate their ability to deliver what employers need, are the ones that will survive. Employers aren’t the only stakeholders that providers will need to work with. At some point in the not-too-distant future, funding for qualifications below level 2 will be devolved out to the regions.
For the first time in over 30 years, Whitehall will not be making the decisions on what is delivered locally. Those will be made by combined authorities and the local enterprise partnerships. Providers should be positioning themselves as skills experts for their area and developing relationships with these organisations.
Other than apprenticeships, in the future, FE qualifications from levels 3 to 6 will only be available to age 19-plus learners via an FE loan.
Establishing a loan facility with the SFA, and marketing loans effectively to learners to truly demonstrate the benefits of continuing to acquire skills and, specifically, of studying a course at their institution, will be key to ensuring post-19 funding income. Providers will need to be even more competitive at communicating what learners need to do to get a job.
In addition, a number of European Social Fund contracts have been announced on particularly tight deadlines. There is money for providers that are quick off the mark.
It’s a brave new world for FE, but while there will be significant challenges, there are clearly opportunities for those who are willing and able to embrace change and find new ways of working.
While losing government funding has been a huge shock, we could see it as a little like the first steps into adulthood for a teenager. If we get it right, paying our own way will bring with it greater freedoms and longer-term security.