Milton slams lack of ‘joined-up thinking’ that led to college bailouts

A former skills minster has described the “nonsense” of her colleagues setting up schools that competed with the struggling colleges she was then forced to bailout.

Anne Milton has revealed the lack of joined-up policy decisions between ministers during her two-year stint in the Department for Education, which she says has “real problems”.

In an interview with FE Week, she said: “I was two years a minister, and we were able to give out grants and loans to colleges who were struggling financially, often associated with mergers and reconfigurations.

“Meanwhile in the schools department, they might have been approving the opening of a sixth form. So there was competition for students. I understand all the good reasons for a competitive environment, but it was a complete nonsense: we were giving cash to colleges while also increasing the number of providers chasing the same kids.”

Multi-million-pound college bailouts have been rife across the sector in recent years, including one of more than £50 million that went to Hull College.

Milton puts the situation down to a mix of underfunding over the past ten years for the sector and in a minority of cases, poor leadership.

It has got so severe that the DfE has had to introduce a new insolvency regime, which two colleges, Hadlow and West Kent and Ashford, are currently being put through.

Milton said it made no sense to continue handing out huge bailouts to colleges without joined up thinking with the schools side of the DfE, which caused “very expensive competition”.

“I saw that with my own eyes. We were giving with one hand, and making it even more difficult to attract the students with the other.”

The former minister made the comments while speaking to FE Week about the DfE’s plan to bring colleges back under government control – an option that is being explored as part of an upcoming White Paper, as revealed by this newspaper earlier this month.

She urged caution over the idea, believing it would be a “step too forward”, as central government is “clumsy, not agile, and slow to respond”.

Milton added that there are “real problems” specifically within the DfE.

“It’s not necessarily a good idea, public ownership. It’s been ticking around for a long time. It’s expensive. The government doesn’t always run things very well. If you look at some of the innovation that’s gone on very well, a lot of that has not been driven by government.

“I would be very nervous about saying, ‘because some colleges have got into trouble, therefore the government should take them back into ownership’.”

Milton admitted that other than insolvency, there are “very few tools the government has to interfere, and it does need to be able to step in” but “now is not the time” for them to take back ownership of colleges.

Asked for his view on government ownership of colleges, Robert Halfon, another former skills minister and current chair of the education select committee, said: “My instinct is always for autonomy and I have always believed that small is beautiful.

“However, I would want to hear the views of colleges, the Association of Colleges, lecturers and unions before deciding on the best course of action both during and in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.”