If a week is a long time in politics, a year feels like an eternity.
It was on 15 October 2018 that the first Colleges Week kicked off. The campaign was part of a push by the Association of Colleges, the unions and other sector bodies to energise the college sector with the aim of raising its profile and – ultimately – securing a badly needed injection of funding.
Today, some 12 months on, as the second Colleges Week begins in earnest, it’s important to reflect on what has happened since that soggy day when 3,000 college staff gathered in a muddy Parliament Square to watch sector leaders atop an open-top bus, calling for more cash for colleges.
Continuing to #LoveOurColleges
We’ve seen the long-awaited publication of the Augar review, which called for a total rebalancing of post-18 education – with colleges being the main beneficiary of its proposals (hypothetically at least – we’re still awaiting a formal government response).
We’ve heard the former prime minister vow to “boost further education spending and put right the errors of the past”. We’ve heard the current prime minister proclaim that it was “vital we invest now in further education and skills”.
We’ve heard chancellor Sajid Javid announce that the government would actually be doing so – to the tune of £400 million. And, most recently, we’ve had education secretary Gavin Williamson pledge to the Conservative Party conference that he would “super-charge further education”.
All the sector’s money troubles are by no means over – but it was certainly a decent start. So where does that leave Colleges Week 2019?
A tough balancing act for colleges
Politically, colleges find themselves in a more complex scenario this time around. A year ago, they hadn’t had a funding increase in almost a decade, and there was nothing left to lose. Today, they have to find a balance between continuing the fight for more funding (while £400 million will pay for plenty of buckets, it won’t mend the holes in the roof) and positioning themselves as government’s go-to partners in driving up the country’s skills levels.
It’s easy to holler from the sidelines when you’re on the outside looking in. But colleges now have to make sure they are on the inside and being listened to. Because I fear there may well be bigger battles ahead which they need to position themselves for.
While there’s been no shortage of speculation that the Augar review is destined for the long grass, the single most revealing statement about FE in the briefing document published today alongside the Queen’s Speech was the following line: “We are undertaking a review of post-18 education to ensure we have a joined-up education system that is accessible to all and encourages the development of the skills we need as a country.”
In other words, the Augar review recommendations – £1 billion in capital funding and the guarantee of free level 2 and 3 qualifications for learners of all ages – could still on the table. So colleges need to keep the pressure up.
Area reviews: the return?
But there’s a recommendation in the Augar report which has been overlooked by many, and could still prove to be the most important of all.
It’s that the structure of the "FE college network, particularly in large cities, should be further modified to minimise duplication in reasonable travel to learn areas".
In rural and semirural areas, the report argued, small FE colleges "should be strongly encouraged to form or join groups in order to ensure sustainable quality provision in the long term", while the government should ensure that a "collaborative national network of FE colleges" would enable "strategic investment and avoid counterproductive competition between providers". In other words: the area reviews, reloaded.
The good news is that further investment from government is a realistic prospect in the coming years. The bad news, as far as some colleges could be concerned, is that the Treasury is unlikely to proffer something for nothing. Whichever way you look at it, the post-area-reviews college landscape did not result in the set of “fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers” which was envisaged at the time, as the sad examples such as Hadlow and West Kent and Ashford colleges make clear.
While the future for colleges is looking healthier than it has for some time, there will be difficult moments to come. And colleges need to build on their hard work over the last 12 months to ensure they have a seat at the table when their future is being discussed – and make sure that, come Colleges Week 2020, they have even more reason to celebrate.