Colleges have been warned against abandoning expensive subjects like science and engineering as they attempt to balance their books.
The warning comes from FE Commissioner Dr David Collins in a report on his first year in office.
Dr Collins, who took up post in November last year, warns that colleges already in tough financial situations will face further cuts, and should not be tempted to cut out “resource-heavy” subjects to improve their finances.
He also repeated his concerns about the future of small colleges, echoing what he has said previously following inspections of institutions including Bicton and Norton Radstock college, both of which have been ordered to work with other colleges to survive.
He said: “As funding becomes tighter, however, questions will arise as to whether some colleges will be able to continue to offer the breadth of curriculum that they have done up until now.
“There is a danger that they will concentrate on those programmes that are less resource intensive and move away from the more expensive practically based areas. What therefore is a sensible business decision for an individual college may not be in the best interests of meeting the employment needs of the area.”
He added: “It would be foolish to pretend that the FE sector does not have a difficult time ahead.
“Reductions in public spending will necessarily continue for the foreseeable future and the demands for highly skilled individuals to service a growing economy will increase.
“When resources are short it is all the more important that colleges and institutions work together to ensure that those resources are best used for the benefit of learners and employers.
“This will mean some consolidation and indeed some specialisation, as well as neighbouring colleges, institutions and providers considering joint plans for their respective communities.
“There is a danger that without such a consideration the more expensive areas of the curriculum (for example, science and engineering) will disappear from areas where they are needed in a college’s pursuit of financial stability.”
In the report, he repeated concerns raised earlier this year about the limited skillsets of some governing bodies, slow responses by college leaders to changing financial situations and a tendency of some principals to focus on projects other than the improvement of their colleges.
Dr Collins also raised concerns about big differences in the role of clerks between colleges, adding that their support of college boards often did not go far enough.
He said: “In colleges where clerking issues have been identified the main problems have arisen from a limited interpretation of what is required to enable the board to carry out its duties effectively.
“The role of a clerk in the further education sector should go much further than the keeping of records, setting of agendas and co-ordinating the production of reports.
“There are also a number of operational concerns arising out of different interpretations of the role. Some clerks, for example, still have responsibilities in the management of the college, which could lead to a conflict of interest.
“In other cases the clerk works closely with, and reports to, the principal. To ensure independence the clerk should report directly to the chair.”
Dr Collins has visited 14 colleges since he was appointed, but only 11 were covered in the report, which covers the period up to July this year.
Of the 11 colleges included, commissioner visits led to stocktake assessments at City of Bristol College, Lesoco, Stratford upon Avon College, City of Wolverhampton College and City of Liverpool College, which Dr Collins has said no longer requires his attention. He said City of Bristol College was no longer rated inadequate by Ofsted and that Lesoco was due for re-inspection soon.
Of the six remaining colleges, K College has been broken up and now forms part of East Kent College and Hadlow College. Bicton College will merge with the Cornwall College Group, while Norton Radstock is said to be considering its options for a merger.
Stockport College is to continue as an independent institution with a refreshed board and leadership, while structure assessments at Weymouth College are ongoing. The Barnfield Federation is in the process of being broken up.
See edition 119 of FE Week, dated Monday, November 24, for more.