IFS: FE the 'biggest loser' in cuts to government funding

Further education has been the victim of the sharpest cuts in the education sector over the last 25 years, according to a new report.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies’ inaugural report on education spending in England said 16-18 education “has been the biggest loser” from changes to funding, with spending per student falling by eight per cent in real terms since 2010-11.

In 1990-91, spending per learner in FE was 50 per cent higher than spending per student in secondary schools, but it is now around eight per cent lower.

School sixth forms are also struggling against low funding, with funding per learner lower than at any point since at least 2002-03 after budget cuts of 21 per cent per learner since 2010-11.

Tim Gardam, chief executive of the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the report, described the fall in FE spending as “clear and worrying”.

The report said there had been a “dramatic shift” towards apprenticeships and a movement away from classroom-based learning within level two and level three qualifications, with apprenticeship spending for learners aged 19+ now representing 36 per cent of the total education funding, as opposed to 13 per cent in 2010. The overall number of 19+ learners has “fallen substantially”, from 4.7 million in 2004 to 2.2 million in 2016.

Although the government has committed extra funds for the introduction of T-levels – amounting to about £115 million in 2019-20 and growing to £445 million by 2021-22 – the report warned that “the new money for T-levels and the proposed cuts to the rest of the FE college budget offset each other almost exactly”, meaning that spend per learner is unlikely to increase.

The IFS also warned that the focus on developing “specific occupational skills” in both apprenticeships and T-levels could leave learners “more vulnerable to negative economic shocks” than if they had more general skills, and noted “significant concerns as to whether high quality T-levels will be ready from day one”.

The report also found that, although the number of adult learners in further education or apprenticeships has fallen by 29 per cent since 2010-11, funding for adult education has been cut by a far higher amount, with a drop of 45 per cent since 2009-10.

Sally Hunt, general secretary for the University and College Union, said the “severe cuts” to further education were “completely unsustainable”.

“If the government really wants to ensure that everyone can access the skills they need to get on in life, it must urgently invest in further education institutions and their staff.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said there is “no rhyme or reason for the extremely low level of funding for 16-18-year-olds”.

“It is a crucial phase of education in which young people take qualifications which are vital to their life chances and they deserve better from a government which constantly talks about social mobility.”

A spokesperson for the DfE said: “Whilst we accept that there are pressures across the system we have protected base rate funding for 16 to 19 year olds until 2020, and are putting more money into our schools than ever before.

“We understand the pressures in further education, which is our wide ranging review of post-18 education and funding is looking at how the system can work better for everyone, ensuring value for money for students and taxpayers.”