Six college leaders have shared the “heart-wrenching” impacts of government funding cuts after speaking anonymously to FE Week for the first time.
We approached the principals and chief executives at this week’s Association of Colleges conference, who revealed how they have had to cut back significantly on staff, pay and provision.
They, like anyone who works in FE, are fully aware that funding for 16 to 19-year-olds and adult learning has faced pressure like no other phases of education.
Between 2010-11 and 2018-19, spending per college learner fell by 12 per cent in real terms, after cuts during the 1990s and low growth in the 2000s, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The economic research organisation has also found that funding for adult education has been cut by 45 per cent since 2009-10.
Politicians appear finally to be taking notice of this, with FE funding among the hottest topics in this year’s general election campaign. But college bosses, understandably, are often reluctant to share the true impact of these cuts with their institutions and learners out of fear of a bad press that could damage their reputations.
This is how college life is being affected:
College leader 1
Staff strikes have been rife in FE over the past few years, mainly because the funding crisis has left lecturers being paid £7,000 a year less than school teachers on average.
The head of a large college group, this leader said the most “critical” impact they have had to deal with because of a lack of government investment is not being able to offer good pay to staff, as well as struggling with the recruitment of teaching staff in specialist subjects.
“The cuts have not enabled us to continue to make progressive pay awards to staff. We’re not able to be as competitive on salaries as we would want to be.
“Where we are trying to develop new specialisms, it is very difficult to attract people in, because you are constrained by affordability.”
“You’re foraging in an ever-decreasing circle of ways to make efficiencies”
College leader 1 went on to say they have taken the decision to protect all areas of provision and the number of frontline lecturers, but in turn have had to cut back office and support staff, thus increasing workload.
“The challenge around that is workload and the wellbeing of those staff who are inevitably having to pick up more things than they would have done previously.
“So you cut out management posts, but unfortunately the work still has to be picked up. That is the other thing we have done: we have invested in a lot of process work to try and make systems more streamlined to try and compensate for there being fewer managers.
“But inevitably, again, you’re foraging in an ever-decreasing circle of ways to make efficiencies.”
They said that, over the past three years, their college has had to absorb around £5.5 million of costs “out of our business, of which probably a third of that is pay and two thirds is non-pay, to run more efficiently”.
They added that the predicted imminent overspend of the apprenticeships budget and particularly the constraints around non-levy funding have led to them turning small employers and apprentices away.
“Most of our employers are small and medium-sized. We are not able to train them currently and the impact for us then is we have fewer apprentices coming through the system, which means less work for staff. We have had to cut staff as a result.”
Asked what it is like having to make this kind of money-saving decision, they said: “It is really, really tough and I would say it is getting even tougher.
“For my colleges, we have done the things we needed to do that were around staff utilisation, curriculum efficiencies and you start to run out of more things you can do.”
College leader 2
The uncertainty around FE funding has left staff feeling “vulnerable” and fearing for their jobs on an almost weekly basis, according to college leader 2.
“Ultimately we are human and, if we feel vulnerable and we might not have a job next month, then our ability to be at the top of what we are doing is considerably impacted,” they told FE Week.
“And, if you think in FE, because we don’t manufacture widgets, we are dealing with people, it is difficult for us to be genuine motivators and game changers for our learners when we ourselves feel so vulnerable. I would say that is probably the biggest impact of funding cuts.”
“You become numb and develop a way of doing it”
They went on to say that, because of cuts, they have had to “take out the kind of courses that might not be as efficient as others: that is to say they are costly to run or don’t attract massive numbers”.
“Financially inefficient” subjects including creative arts, which require big spaces, art classes and land-based courses have all been dropped by the college in recent years.
These were “heart-wrenching” decisions to make because “colleges in their local areas are more than just education and training providers”.
“They get communities to gel together and, when you have young people who are disengaged or worse still they engage in gangs, stuff like that, then society needs to engage them somehow.
“For this type of young person, generally education is not really the highest of their priorities, but you can potentially have a fighting chance if you could engage them in something they are interested in, so they can start to interact with society on a different type of interaction.
“The more you cut inefficient provision, the more you cut your opportunity to help those learners.”
Asked if making decisions to reduce support staff and provision had got harder over the years, the leader said: “Perversely, no. You become numb and develop a way of doing it. It’s heart-wrenching and it doesn’t go away. In fact, I still remember in 2015 having to do something like this and I still feel it now – and I had to do some last summer.
“But what you do is develop a way of doing it so you just go into that mood, blinkered, body armour and it is really sad.”
College leader 3
Leader 3 said they have had to sacrifice vital adult education courses in recent years to ensure that their college stays financially sustainable.
“Some time ago, when funding was a little bit more generous, you could carry provision that was small numbers or allowed for progression but potentially wasn’t viable for whatever reason,” they told FE Week.
“I think, over the years of this static funding picture and increasing cost, actually you can’t do that anymore. There are things you can’t do, not because there isn’t a value in them, but because they aren’t making a contribution to the core stuff, such as adult community provision.
“The difficulty is it is very expensive to do that at a time where actually your funding rate is static for however long and so we haven’t got anything like that now.”
They explained that these are usually short courses in basic IT, for example, but “some might be just courses that are more enjoyment, perhaps photography or something like that.
“We’ve got only very small amounts of that sort of provision.
“I often say that at some point somebody, a minister, might turn round and say ‘where’s all of the lifelong learning gone?’ Obviously there is a big issue there.”
Like college leaders 1 and 2, they said they were finding it “difficult to recruit in certain areas” as they “can’t compete with schools” when it comes to salaries.
“For example, we can’t get some of the maths teachers we would like and it’s really tough to recruit a highly skilled engineer as you are competing with the wages of big businesses.
They said their college had a strict process of scrutinising “every staff vacancy” to “make sure we actually need that role”.
They added: “We are conscious that, if you are adding to a pay bill, obviously that puts further pressure on the finances.”
College leader 4
Increasing class sizes and huge reductions in teaching hours are two of the biggest impacts of funding cuts that this chief executive of a large college group has had to deal with in recent years.
“You used to have a class of, say, 16, but you’re now having to do groups of 20 or 22 in order to make it financially viable,” leader 4 said.
“That then puts pressure on the teacher because, instead of giving 16 sets of feedback to learners, you are now giving 22. So in some ways the student experience may not be affected but the workload on the teacher is that much greater.”
“They said it was easier to work in the NHS as the workload was less”
They continued: “The other thing for me is, when I first came into teaching technical education, we had 1,200 hours a year. Now you are lucky to get 540.”
They said the funding levels that colleges had ten years ago enabled them to “almost over-recruit some teachers so you had some spare teachers that could actually do project work or help teachers when they were new and coming in to really ease them in”.
They added that there was no “fat” in the system anymore and, when lecturers are appointed now, “you come in and teach straight away”.
They added: “So some of the things which may seem like luxuries but really raise the quality of the learning experience are now not in the system because none of us can afford to over-recruit.”
Additional support for students with high needs is another area that has been reduced because of funding cuts.
“The amount of support you give to certain students has to be thought of very carefully. Do you support a dyspraxia student for four hours or do you go, OK, everybody can have one hour’s support?”
They continued: “Another issue I think we are all facing is the level of mental health support our young people receive.
“One of the things we are looking at, but it means that we will have to take the money from somewhere else, is educational psychologists, not just for students but to help teachers.
“Some of our teachers have been teaching for five years. The problems that they face with some young people they haven’t faced before.”
College leader 4 said they recently recruited someone from the NHS as a lecturer but they left after just a few months in the post because “they said it was easier to work in the NHS as the workload was less”.
College leader 5
Leader 5 runs a large college group and said over the past five years they have had to cut some areas of “costly” provision, such as engineering, as well as delaying building work and holding back on investing in new equipment.
However, the main focus for their cuts has been “trying to get people to do more with less”.
“We have cut managers and just enabled coordinators to do more. We have taken out administrative staff. We have tried to deliver things like ‘support to learning’ with fewer learning assistants because we just haven’t been able to afford them.
“So, undoubtedly, I don’t see how anybody could have lived in the financial circumstances we have lived in for the past five years without the students being affected in some way because the provision that we have been able to deliver has been really, really difficult to do.”
They said they had to take “£2 million out of our cost base this year” and “we lost money last year and we will lose money this year as well”.
The college group gained planning permission for a new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) building four years ago but it doesn’t “have enough cash in order to launch it”.
Some individual campuses in their group have “really poor buildings” which need a lot of money spent on them but they can’t because “we don’t have access to capital”.
“We have got to stay financially solvent, so the limitation there is you stop investing. We have got areas that desperately could do with some updated equipment which they haven’t got because you have to rationalise it.”
They said they needed to be “very resilient as a chief executive” when making these tough decisions.
“I love my job, I love the difference we make to students, but there are times when I think, Why am I struggling this hard? Because there are other things that perhaps I could be doing but would not be so challenging from a financial point of view.”
College leader 6
Leader 6 claimed to have retained staffing at all levels and protected all areas of provision in the face of government cuts.
They said that good management skills have never been more crucial for college leaders and it was their “efficient” way of working that had enabled them to avoid making cuts where others have.
They argued that, as the only large college in a rural area that students could travel to, they “don’t have the option” of withdrawing expensive provision.
They also said that they could not “cut a back office service and expect teachers to pick up what they were doing because you need to protect the frontline”.
“As a principal you have always got at least four or five years in your head”
“To reduce people means you have to stop doing things. What you need to do is offer it in a more efficient and effective way,” they told FE Week.
“It’s about being as clever and efficient as you can be with funding that is out there.
“Go for projects that support business as usual, rather than projects that are going to be in addition to what you are already doing and can make us busy fools.
“Pick things that align to your strategic objectives so it is always moving you forward, and be really clear on your strategic intent.”
Asked if they would therefore say that the impact of funding cuts was that colleges are reluctant to take risks and work in new areas, such as institutes of technology, they said: “I think, providing you have got a sound business plan, it wouldn’t prevent you moving into a new area. But that new area has to be aligned with where you think the college and the provision needs to go.”
They continued: “I think it’s about taking the long-term view and it’s about looking at, OK, this is what we know now but this looks like it is on the horizon for next year and the year after.
“As a principal you have always got at least four or five years in your head.
“You are planning the next enrolment already because you have got staff out in schools talking to young people, talking to employers about what apprenticeships they need – but that is not enough.
“You are also looking at the following two years, when you are thinking, OK, in 2021, what T-levels will there be? What will they look like? What does that mean for teachers?
“What curriculum changes have you got to make now to be ready for that? What does the workforce look like, and how are we going to find T-level industry placements?
“If you have only ever got three years in your head – the last one, this one and the next one – you won’t be successful in that. You really have got to future-gaze.”