Trade Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady told delegates at the Unionlearn conference that fighting the “false economy of FE cuts” was “our first priority”.
In her speech to today’s conference at Congress House, in central London, Ms O’Grady (pictured above) warned that the next five years will “test our mettle”.
“Our first priority must be to fight the false economy of cuts to FE,” she said.
“As we all know, the government is intent on shrinking the state back to the same level it was at in the 1930s.
“Nowhere is this more at risk from this ideological drive than FE. Thousands of FE staff face redundancy or more casualisation.
“This is no way to go about tackling Britain’s skills shortages, or provide the parity between vocational and academic education that everyone seems to be talking about.
“These cuts have disastrous implications for learners, for our skills base and for the economy. They will exasperate inequality, damage productivity and slow the economy.”
Her comments reflected widespread sector concern over loss of funding to FE, which has faced adult skills budget cuts of around 35 per cent since 2009 and is now gearing up to deal with the consequences of a further 24 per cent cut in 2015/16.
Ms O’Grady added there was no denying that the country was experiencing an economic recovery, with record numbers of people in work.
But she said: “The fact is that our economy remains far too dependent on too many people in low-paid, low-skilled, insecure jobs.
“We will never meet our productivity potential unless we start remembering who really creates the wealth in this country and the answer is simple, ‘it’s workers’.
“That’s why a case for a national drive to improve the skills of all working people should be common sense.”
The conference also featured talks on the economic benefits for workers and the wider economy of union-led learning, part-time education, and wider FE, by Peter Horrocks, vice chancellor of The Open University, and Ben Nield, assistant director at the Marchmont Observatory, University of Exeter.
Neil Darwin, chief executive of the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership, also addressed delegates.
He said: “The challenge for me around skills is enormous. It is one of our top three priorities, the others being housing and infrastructure. It’s vitally important to consider how we train our people into valued work.”
After hearing of Ms O’Grady’s speech to the conference, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: “We will continue to focus investment in areas that have the most impact on increasing the skills of our workforce and help increase productivity across the country.”