Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy and communications at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week every month.
When I started writing this column a year ago, I promised myself I’d try not to rant, to get too defensive, or to be one-sided.
But when the government announced its 17.5 per cent funding cut for 18-year-old learners, all that went out of the window.
Because it was Christmas, though, I tried to approach the problem with gentle humour, in the shape of a little poem.
Somehow, it made me feel that, grim though the cut was, we could protest in a calm and possibly even witty way. However, the time for calm and wit has gone.
As more evidence emerges on the damaging impact of the cut, lots of us get angrier.
As we all know, individual colleges are set to lose hundreds of thousands from their budgets, and will overall be hit far worse than other providers.
We need, also, to fight against the similarly devastating cut to adult learning funds.
Under plans revealed by FE Week, the Skills Funding Agency [SFA] will no longer fund nearly 1,500 qualifications, many of which are the most valuable in ensuring participation and progression.
In a college like ours, where so many adult learners have had such poor prior experience of education, or come from seriously disadvantaged areas, short and flexible qualifications can be the best way of ensuring success and employability — a picture no doubt recognised by colleagues across the country.
It goes without saying that the damage to budgets is significant, not just for the measurable loss of funds, but because of the wider impact.
If, for example, short courses are no longer possible, and adults on 16 to19 programmes don’t attract viable funds, what does the adult learning offer look like in many colleges?
If a programme is offered with a majority of 18-year-old learners, but some others, does the funding cut necessitate the closure of the entire course?
Barbara Spicer [SFA interim chief executive] was wrong to suggest, writing on the FE Week website about the adult qualifications cut, that it was “not about funding policy” — both it and the 18-year-old cut are very clearly funding issues.
Actually, though, the real issues go much wider than cash.
The cuts could quite simply result in fewer students going to FE colleges, particularly if certain courses have to close, not to mention the potential impact on staff recruitment and morale.
They could also have a devastating effect on the education of people from minority backgrounds, from deprived areas, with low levels of English ability, or with poor records of previous attainment, because these are the people for whom the flexible courses are often of most value.
They could result in fewer students — from those backgrounds and others — accessing higher education and apprenticeships, or the best jobs, or the other opportunities which come from those pathways.
Finally, they will — in their immense short-sightedness — have a lasting and negative impact on local and national economies, because people will, as a result of the funding changes, have a tougher time getting jobs.
And in doing all of this, the cuts will damage efforts by the FE sector and many others to improve social mobility and economic inclusion.
Combined, these cuts are nothing less than an assault on the values of fairness, equality, opportunity and access for which FE has always been the proud flag-flyer.
The situation makes me phenomenally angry, and I’m glad that our college, alongside our representative bodies and others, won’t let the issue rest.
We all need to channel our anger into our local MPs’ inboxes, into articles and letters and posters and case studies and anything else which will make the government see its error.
If we’re serious about the value of what FE does, we will fight seriously against a cut not just to our funds but to everything we stand for – and which you’d hope the country does too.