I’m not sure when the problem began, but I think it may have been when Leicester City defied every commentator and pundit and won the Premier League football title. It was such an unlikely outcome – and it was soon to be followed by many more, Trump and the Brexit vote being the most significant.
For those of us trying to influence policy and government investment, the job became almost impossible. For the past three years, I’ve heard myself saying different versions of “It’s not that easy to call” or “We’ve never been in a situation like this before”. Scenarios which in previous years would have been dismissed as fanciful seem to become reality almost on a daily basis.
The problem is that when your job is to try to influence outcomes, not being able to confidently predict what might happen is a real drawback. With the Brexit date changing, a general election potentially on the cards and Parliament searching its soul, it’s been tough trying to work out where to focus. However, last week we finally got something a bit more solid to work on.
An early spending review: good news?
The new chancellor, Sajid Javid announced that there will be a one-year spending review in September. Despite scant detail on how the review will be carried out and when the outcome will be announced, it is clear that there is money to spend, with the prime minister already announcing increased funding for the NHS, prisons, police and transport. Some view this as electioneering; a pre-election give-away to show that this government is different. It may well be but, in our crazy world of politics, you’d be a fool to believe anything is certain any more.
For colleges, an early spending review is likely to be a good thing. The #LoveOurColleges campaign has successfully raised the profile of colleges, and college funding, way beyond what any of us expected. A year ago, when we launched the campaign, I’d have bitten your hand off if you had offered a scenario in which the outgoing and incoming prime minister both talked about the vital and urgent need to invest in FE colleges. But that’s what happened. On the day Boris Johnson took up office, in answer to Anne Milton’s well-judged and welcome question in Parliament, he said: “It is vital that we invest now in further education and skills.”
Why colleges are 'vital'
To give even more cause for optimism, the chancellor took to Twitter in his Conservative Party leadership bid back in May, writing: “I went to a further education college so know just how vital they are.” The good news is that both the PM and the chancellor now have the chance to show that they meant it. Our discussions with officials in the Treasury, Number 10 and the Department for Education boil down to more investment in young people, in adults and in college capital.
Our proposition is as simple as it is compelling: colleges are a vital part of the education infrastructure and yet they have been neglected for too long. Every community deserves a thriving, energetic college. To achieve that, college leaders need funding rates (some of which have been frozen for eight years) to be uprated, more money to support more people to succeed in education and training, and a capital injection to ensure that facilities, infrastructure and IT are all up to date and in-line with what employers need.
Delivering that investment will provide urgent and vital outcome, including: an increase in the number of hours of teaching time for young people to connect with their peers in other countries; better pay for college staff; and colleges able to deliver a healthy surplus which can be invested in the quality, innovation and flexibility that students and employers desperately need.
It almost goes without saying that Brexit, deal or no deal, will heighten the need for greater investment in the people who live in our country. It will become more important than ever that we build a strong education and skills base. To achieve that, we need to see fair and growing funding of schools, colleges and universities. The proportion of GDP we spend on education is lower than our competitors and dropping. This spending review is a fantastic opportunity for the chancellor, supported by the PM, to reverse that trend. A spending review which invests in young people and gives adults more opportunities to retrain, upskill and get the education they need will honour the commitments already given, but, most importantly, it will be the best preparation we can have for a post-Brexit Britain.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges