Just before I start my summer holiday, I thought it a good idea to reflect on just how far the college sector has come over the past year. In his opening remarks to introduce last week’s House of Lords debate on the post-18 review, Viscount Younger of Leckie said: “It is important to remember that most students in post-18 education are not at university. As [Philip] Augar emphasised, further education and technical colleges play an essential part in delivering the modern industrial strategy, with its long-term plan to boost productivity.”
I’m not sure that any Lords debate has opened with any line like that before now, despite lots of us at the Association of Colleges saying it for years. It comes hot on the heels of the prime minister admitting, at the launch of the Augar report, that successive governments have neglected colleges and further education. Augar himself made this the core message of his report – the need to invest more in colleges and the people that they serve. Unprecedented support for the sector, statements from others that we have been shouting for ages now emerging from influential lips. But it doesn’t stop there.
Quick read: Boris Johnson backs FE funding
Background: 'Undervalued and underfunded': Theresa May on FE
At least one of the candidates for leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister is an overt supporter of more college investment. Boris Johnson has said more than once that he would increase the investment in colleges to redress the funding cuts. Secretly I’m confident, given who is supporting him, that the other candidate, Jeremy Hunt, believes the same because it seems that everyone who matters now does.
Given that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that our job at the AoC is all but over for this year. We just need to kick back, take a summer break, relax and await the due process of a Spending Review (if we have one) or a Budget – and the next chancellor will put right the years of neglect. Sadly, it feels a little less certain than that from where I sit.
So, to help with the details on what more investment looks like, we are launching a short paper setting out our proposals for the Spending Review. It won’t make the holiday reading list, I’m sure, but it sets out what colleges want from the next chancellor in pounds as well as policies. None of it should come as a surprise – we have been trailing these asks for some time, and some we have taken directly from the Augar report.
Closing socioeconomic gaps
The headline asks are: a significant increase in the 16-18 funding rates; action to close socioeconomic gaps: for apprenticeship reform; and for full implementation of the FE parts of the post-18 review. If fully implemented, the package would add more than £2 billion to public spending by 2022-3 compared to now. Some of this will be necessary to keep up with rising population but other elements are necessary to avert skills shortages and help companies and public services thrive in the 2020s.
But it’s not the numbers I want to stress, because they will be subject to all sorts of analysis, debate and political manoeuvrings before any new cash comes colleges’ way. Perhaps I’m getting greedy, or complacent, given how much support college investment has been getting recently, but what matters most to me is the less tangible strategic relationship we are seeking for colleges with government.
Never again death by a thousand cuts
More than anything else, my hope is that colleges will never again be subject to the death by a thousand cuts that I’ve witnessed over the last decade. I want to see a step-change in which government overtly recognises the vital role that colleges play in every community in which they operate, and that every community needs a thriving college. Beyond that, I’d like to see colleges spoken about in the same breath as schools and universities when it comes to describing the education service our country needs and wants.
If any of that is ever to be achieved, it has to happen soon, because colleges really are having a moment. If it’s only because nobody can possibly deny the neglect they have suffered from, then things will not change enough; some extra funding in the short term might just as easily be reversed with funding cuts in tougher times.
We need the reputation and standing of colleges to break out of the second-best, residual, peripheral view that has made it all too easy to neglect; we need a positive vision of what colleges can offer for a better future. When we have won that, I really will be able to relax. Until then, we have a lot of campaigning, explaining, showcasing and influencing to do. I’ll be back on that track in August after my holiday.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges