As we enter Colleges Week, the response from college leaders, staff, students and stakeholders to our #LoveOurColleges campaign has been stunning. The partnership with the staff unions and the National Union of Students has really worked and the energy and creativity going into the week of action has really benefited from joining forces. Everyone can see how colleges have been hit by a decade of austerity; and everyone can see how they are ripe for investment in Theresa May’s "post-austerity" period.
Ten years of funding cuts and freezes, resulting in a 30 per cent overall drop in college income, have certainly taken their toll on colleges. Courses have been cut, reducing options and opportunities; hours of teaching have dropped (young people are now getting around 15 hours per week compared with 25 to 30 in other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries); staff pay has fallen behind inflation and pay in schools (median pay for college lecturers is £30,000 compared with £37,000 for school teachers); and investment in buildings and technology has slowed considerably.
Despite all of that, our campaign has shown how vibrant colleges are, how creative they can be (have you seen the song from Chesterfield College staff and students?) and how proud people are of their colleges. This week will see that pride being shown across the country in all sorts of ways.
'Colleges really are special'
Politicians should take careful note because more than anything what it shows is just how special colleges really are. They are not simply another faceless institution being paid to deliver a service; they are community assets, supporting people and places to transform, businesses to thrive and society to be enriched. They are sources of hope, places of refuge, havens of tolerance and wellbeing; all in a scary world of uncertainty, fake news and weak political leadership.
It’s tempting to wonder whether the Brexit vote would have been different if more people had been able to access college courses which supported them to realise their talents and ambitions. For the Brexit vote was, at least partly, a signal from the population of a lack of hope – for them, for their communities and for their families. Our campaign this week will show that college students don’t share that lack of hope; their college experience gives them self-esteem, confidence and skills which will serve them well in the future.
A voice to the voiceless
The government needs to understand that and invest, through colleges, in the people and communities which have felt so dislocated and left behind after a decade of austerity. There will always be tough decisions for any government to make about where and how it invests, and the NHS, social care, housing, defence, transport and others will all be making their cases. Some of those cases are incredibly strong and I don’t envy the Treasury in having to make choices.
I just hope that our campaign – the pride, energy and creativity shown – will make officials and politicians sit up and notice colleges again. The young people in colleges now had no voice in the Brexit referendum but their lives will be affected by it forever. We owe it to them and those who will follow to give them at least the same opportunities as their counterparts in other nations.
For adults, we know that the pace of technological change risks widening inequalities, marooning more and more people with inadequate skills and poor work and life chances. Colleges are well-placed to entice them into learning and to help the progress through to relevant skills, self-confidence and better futures.
Great to see #LoveourColleges trending in the UK. Positive messages from colleges all over my timeline. Impressed with how @AoC_info @ucu @nusuk et al have mobilised the sector 🙌 pic.twitter.com/vLr5OU7917— Stephen Exley (@stephenexley) October 15, 2018
More and more employers are now facing the reality of how the college cuts have hit their chances of recruiting skilled people. As the number of EU nationals moving here to work falls, so recruitment and skills difficulties widen. It really is as simple as that – without urgent investment in colleges, the routes to those skills for people with low prior attainment will be at best weak and at worst completely absent. The challenge is not just to help people learn new work-relevant skills; 9 million adults lack the basic literacy and numeracy they need to learn those skills. So the journey for many will be long, not immediate. The sooner we help people to start their learning journey, the sooner they will be filling the more fulfilling, skilled and productive jobs our economy needs and people deserve.
So our cry this week is not to invest in colleges, but to invest in people. Theresa May said she wanted to help those people who are just about managing; colleges can do that with the right investment. Imagine the return on that investment for the politicians who show that they really do care about everyone, not just the learning privileged.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges