Where can colleges and independent learning providers look as government funding cuts bite, asks David Hughes.

It says something about public sector funding when a 20 per cent cut in funding is met with a certain amount of relief.

The long-anticipated Skills Funding Statement (SFS) 2013-2016 raised a number of emotions and issues for me.

The initial relief came because the headline cut to the adult skills budget of 20 per cent was no greater than had been announced in last year’s spending review and we had feared it would be worse.

I was concerned enough by the noises about further cuts to FE and widening participation funding in higher education that I wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister, as did others. My plea was a simple one. I urged him to secure opportunities for adults to progress through learning, all the way from entry-level literacy and numeracy to higher education and beyond, throughout their lives. It seems that he listened to us and the cuts were not extended even further.

The fact remains, though, that this cut is still profoundly and extremely challenging to colleges and independent learning providers.

The blatant fact is there has been a reduction in the adult skills budget from £2.8bn in 2010-11 to £2.0bn in 2015-16 even before inflation is taken into account. Two other vital budgets, for offender learning and community learning, may have been ‘protected’ but have not had inflationary rises for many years. There is growth, of course, in the advanced level learning loans budget, which provides some opportunity in a new ‘market’ for many colleges and providers.

I am seeing signs that some colleges are being creative and more commercial in how they deal with the cuts

Overall, the funding challenge to the range of provision is enormous even though there is a good deal of enthusiasm in the words of the SFS about the breadth and range of priorities required. The list of priorities is impressive, but it raises questions about how achievable it is with the funding available.

At the most simple level, the priorities include basic skills, traineeships, programmes for the unemployed, apprenticeships and higher-level skills; and it is hard not to argue with those.

At a time of economic recovery, when having a workforce with the right skills is what employers are crying out for, it is absolutely essential that there is the right kind of opportunities for adults to learn and retrain at times and in places that are convenient for them.

My concern is whether any individual college or provider can offer the complete range to adults in their locality. Will individual choices by institutions, made in the right spirit and sensible for them really add up in every locality in the country? Those decisions on what to cut and what to keep are devil and deep blue sea decisions and gaps will occur.

Colleges and providers may feel that they have no choice but to cut courses as public subsidy is cut. I am seeing signs, though, that some colleges are being creative and more commercial in how they deal with the cuts.

That creativity and commercialism is surely what is needed to develop new markets and to attract payments from employers and learners, particularly for short courses and those that support people’s careers and their professional development. There is also a latent market for individuals to invest more in their own learning. Not just for enhancing their career prospects, but for leisure learning too.

Attracting employer and learner payments for learning is not easy, and to do so at a time of enormous challenge makes it even tougher. But unless it happens across the country, I fear that we will lose so many vital opportunities for people to learn and for employers to get the skilled workforces they need. The social, community, family, economic impacts of this will be profound.

That’s why I am so keen to see colleges and providers use the loans budget and other opportunities to stimulate (or tap into a demand for?) learning; this must happen to halt the decline in opportunities for adults to learn and to benefit from their learning.