As if the numbers themselves didn’t paint the picture clearly enough, Association of Colleges (AoC) research today highlighted just how adult skills funding cuts of up to 24 per cent next academic year would “decimate” the sector. Ian Sackree considers how colleges might react in order to survive.

So, the SFA has spoken, announcing adult funding cuts of up to 24 per cent that for some marks the death knell for adult FE as we know it in classrooms and workshops across the country.

Colleges can look forward to being dark, lonely places after 5pm, when each should really be at the front and centre of its local community serving as the focal point of people development. Whatever did happen to that wonderful Government concept of ‘Total Place?’

The debate rages as to whether the sector was fully informed about the level of cuts long before they were announced, and those organisations duly appointed such as the AoC have made strong and robust representations on the sector’s behalf.

Notwithstanding, the ‘horse has well and truly bolted’ coinciding with most colleges trying to pull together a first cut budget no doubt in time to consider the option of issuing notice of redundancy letters to those undeserving servants of the classroom to catch the financial year end. This must surely raise the question that has been asked so many times again — when will a government match the medium-to-longer term task of developing sustainable skills with a funding system that sees beyond 36 weeks?

This round of cuts will clearly affect the volume of delivery whereby previous rate cuts have soaked up what little organisational fat existed

Now, what can senior leaders do to lead their colleges through this most challenging period as the relentless financial pressure on an already creaking sector builds?

This round of cuts will clearly affect the volume of delivery whereby previous rate cuts have soaked up what little organisational fat existed, slowly nibbling away at the quality of the FE offer.

The correct solution will unlikely correlate directly with staff cuts and service reductions.

My real fear is that one of the 50 or so colleges we are widely led to believe are experiencing real financial difficulty is about to go pop.

When the first goes expect others to quickly follow, and when they do, let’s hope that those conducting the financial post-mortem focus on all of the contributory factors rather than simply blaming the accountable officer. We must wait and see.

Moving forward, and to stand a chance of avoiding financial meltdown something more strategic, playing a ‘longer game’ is now required. My advice is to look around the sector, as I am fortunate to do every week.

Look hard enough and you will see that there are still colleges — the most ‘aspirational’ among us — that are coping, even growing, and some even generating a modest surplus.

Achieving student numbers (and retaining them) remains the key priority, but the essential capacity and ability to strategically plan the college’s future remains prime.

It has been some years since we were required to submit an annual 94-page strategic plan to the funding agency of the day. This has been replaced in many colleges by a ‘thin’, glossy ‘four-pager’ denoting a range of targets — but crucially omitting the pathway to their achievement.

Now, more than ever colleges require an HR strategy that talks to a carefully compiled financial strategy that both mutually align with the local skills (curriculum) strategy to be delivered.

Those colleges that are getting it right have (and there is an unfortunate human capital cost) long abandoned the notion that all staff can be retained on a wholly employed basis and designated (the precise balance will vary from college to college) that a relatively fixed percentage (usually between 20 per cent and 30 per cent) of teaching and teaching support staff will be drawn from a reliable, hi-quality FE-based staffing agency providing the essential responsive ‘tap’ to turn down in difficult, challenging times and back up to full pressure when opportunities arise.

In short, never has it been more important to be able to fix the most expensive cost in the college — academic staffing — to its most efficient point. The future of our sector demands this.