The second celebratory seven-day #LoveourColleges, held this week, has been about showing the impact of further education and underlining the need for adequate funding for the future.

Yet you’ll no doubt understand if I say that I’d rather we didn’t need to stage another one next year. What I would rather see, is the government suddenly realising just how much the country needs a thriving FE sector and dig deep in its pockets to compensate the sector for years of funding cuts.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) recently reported the dramatic cuts to the sector’s funding in recent years. 

The lecturers’ union, the UCU, says FE pay is down 25 per cent in the last decade and that 24,000 teaching posts have been lost in the same period. All told, the country is now seeing a worrying number of colleges openly admitting they are struggling financially.

Funding reared its head recently when I attended a really useful get-together hosted by the Department for Education for organisations that have successfully bid for funding to create an institute of technology (IoT). At Milton Keynes College, we are planning one with business partners for Bletchley Park, the home of the wartime Enigma code breakers, and excited at the prospect of an initiative to cut the UK skills gap. But the thought that kept surfacing for me during the meeting was that  while we are making plans for producing a whole new generation of digitally skilled individuals at Level 4, where are the Level 2 and 3 students going to come from to create that pipeline of talent?  After all, if we don’t have the funds to train them, who else will?

It’s worth remembering the demands in the #LoveourColleges manifesto, first published last year, which have yet to be met:

  • Increasing the 16-19 funding rate by five per cent a year for the next five years and extending the pupil premium to cover post-16 students
  • Fully funding a National Retraining Scheme to support level 3 to 5 skills
  • Introducing a lifetime learning entitlement to fund skills training for all adults who have not previously achieved a level 3 qualification
  • Providing immediate exceptional funding, ring-fenced for pay, to cover the costs of a fair pay deal for college staff from 2018/19 onwards.

Historically we in the sector have sometimes been our own worst enemies by failing to make enough noise about the achievements of our former students. Three of the sixteen finalists in this year’s BBC Masterchef, the Professionals, developed their skills at Milton Keynes College, for example. We could also talk about Georgia Mallory, who studied with our Performing Arts team and is now in the second year of her degree studies at the Central School of Speech and Drama.  Equally, we could make a fuss about Ben Tomblin, who studied construction with us; Tomblin now runs his own business with eight employees and has apprentices attending our college.

What we have managed to do in the past twelve months though, is raise awareness sufficiently that MPs have debated our inadequate level of funding. In January, Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, spelled out FE’s Cinderella-status within education in a Westminster Hall debate and the need to “banish the ugly sisters of snobbery and underfunding”.

At the same event,  Anne Milton, the Skills Minister, acknowledged the way higher education has crowded out FE in terms of funding and educational opportunities. “We must ensure,” she said “that everyone, whatever their age, background or prior educational attainment, can access the best opportunities that are available.” 

These two politicians have got the message because both know what we do and how well we do it. What is proving more difficult is getting the ear of the treasury, but we won’t be giving up. We will keep shouting in the hope of being heard. Hopefully, where you are,  #LoveourColleges week 2019 has been a fun and positive experience, which is just as well, since there is every sign that we will need another one next year. But I’m happy to be proved wrong.