The Covid-19 virus has undermined many of the certainties we all believed were secure in life and work and we are still in the early stages of what looks set to be a long journey. Because of that, I wanted to use this column to reassure colleges and set out the main issues we are in discussion about with the Department for Education (DfE) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), along with other relevant organisations.
It’s not an exciting list, nor particularly interesting, but I share it to provide some vital assurance that the lack of clarity for colleges is not because the issues are not being considered. I am confident that communications from DfE and ESFA will be ramping up, with increasing degrees of certainty to address these issues.
Probably the most fundamental question I keep getting asked is about school and college closures. The moves in many other countries to close, alongside the decisions by some universities to move to online teaching only, has heightened the political and media pressure on the government to make the same move here. It’s not a simple decision to make, particularly for schools, because closures would lead to many people – including those in healthcare – unable to work unless flexible arrangements can be found to enable them to look after their children. For colleges, we are worried about the impact on vulnerable and high-needs students for whom colleges are both a safe space and the best environment for them to learn and to succeed. For these reasons, complete closure is something to avoid for both schools and colleges unless absolutely necessary.
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The complexity of college closure
Some colleges would be unable to close completely anyway – those running farms or residential accommodation, for instance. While many will be reluctant because of the difficulties in delivering some of the learning online. Many subjects involve a lot of practical learning, which is hard to replicate, and an unknown number of college students may not have access to the necessary broadband and IT kit to be able to learn at home. To those practical issues should be added the other unknown of how far college students will be able and motivated to carry on learning at home, particularly with question marks on the horizon about whether exams will go ahead or not this summer.
What is also clear is that colleges will lose significant income as a result of closure. Even without forced closure, colleges will enrol fewer new students and apprentices and attendance and completions will also drop. We know that attendance has already started to drop as students stay at home and gaps are appearing with teachers self-isolating. Both will worsen if the virus spreads as predicted. Employers are cancelling full-cost and group training and restricting visits to the workplace so that apprenticeships have to be paused and industrial placements postponed.
In other cases, colleges are choosing, quite rightly, to stop sending students to some work placements, such as care homes where they present a risk to the elderly. Meanwhile, the international student market has closed down, with many colleges losing income for short courses which run throughout the year.
All of this means that overall college income will drop and cashflow will be under severe pressure. Both in what is probably the worst year financially for a sector which has had a decade of neglect and had to cope with a falling 16- to 18-year-old cohort for many years. The 30 per cent funding cut over the last decade has left most colleges with insufficient reserves and cash to cope with the financial hit.
'The ramifications of coronavirus are worrying'
Alongside the financial strains, college data on retention, achievement and outcomes will also suffer as more students and staff get ill or self-isolate. In a data-driven sector, the ramifications are worrying, whether it be on future funding, intervention or future inspections.
So that scopes out the challenges which look set to worsen, particularly if colleges are forced to close and if exams this summer are disrupted.
These are the impacts which we have been discussing with DfE and ESFA officials. They have been listening and working incredibly hard behind the scenes to forecast, plan and reach decisions. I know that there is a good understanding in government of the impact the virus is already having on colleges as well as the direct consequences felt by staff and students. We need to realise that the government itself is dealing with these sorts of impact in every sector, so it will take time to reach agreements on how to resolve everything. But we are working hard to get the reassurances communicated, find ways to help government provide income security and cashflow support to colleges and ensure that staff and students come through this crisis.
At the Association of Colleges, we will commence a daily briefing for members to make sure that as this virus spreads we can communicate the government’s advice and decisions promptly without confusion. Please take a look at www.aoc.co.uk for further information and updates.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges