Colleges are calling on government to boost their funding to help improve staff pay after a survey found there are around 6,000 job vacancies in the sector.
According to the Association of Colleges (AoC), which carried out the research, this is the highest number of vacancies seen in “two decades” – a claim that is based on assumptions from experienced senior leaders since there is a lack of comparable data.
High levels of persistent vacancies were found in government priority areas such as construction, engineering, health and social care and science and maths.
The AoC has now called for a “concerted national push to tackle the recruitment and retention problem before it worsens”, namely by increasing funding rates which have been cut over the past ten years.
Their concerns about the “staffing crisis” have been echoed by staff unions, including the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison.
“The issue for colleges around recruiting and retaining staff has been building for some time. It is a symptom of the decision to freeze or reduce colleges’ funding for over a decade and has left the sector struggling to keep pace on pay,” said Kirsti Lord, deputy chief executive of AoC.
“In relation to schools, college pay doesn’t even come close, and when potential staff can earn far more in their specific industry, it makes it increasingly difficult for colleges to attract the people they desperately need.”
The survey of college HR directors was carried out in December 2021 and had responses from 48 per cent of all colleges.
The colleges that responded reported 3,293 vacancies. The report said this implies a total of 6,000 vacancies across the sector, a vacancy rate of 5.5 per cent.
It found that the average number of vacancies per college was 30, with one reporting 162 vacancies.
Some 1,853 of these vacancies were in support areas, with high levels of persistent vacancies in learning support roles, student services and facilities and estates roles.
The current level of vacancies is creating increased pressure on existing staff according to 96 per cent of survey respondents.
And 61 per cent said that vacancies were having a significant impact on the amount they are having to spend on agency fees.
Speaking on the reasons for the high numbers of vacancies, the AoC noted that the sector had been hit by a “decade of cuts and endless reform”.
“As it stands, teachers in schools are currently paid over £9,000 more than college lecturers on average, despite many college lecturers being more specialist and having brought real-life industry experience to their roles,” the organisation said in a statement.
The AoC is also now calling on the government to take “important short-term actions, including adjustments to the 2021/22 adult education performance rules and providing sufficient flexibility in 16-18 funding for 2022/23”.
They also want the government to commit to action on whole-college funding, including increases and reform, action to reduce external bureaucracy and improvements to teacher training routes.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “This report clearly demonstrates the consequences of underfunding the college sector with 6,000 posts lying empty and a yawning chasm in pay remaining between those who teach in our colleges and school teachers.”
However, Grady argued that college leaders are “not blameless in all of this” and had repeatedly used a lack of government funding as an excuse to hold down staff pay. “Employers can and must pay staff more, and the government must ensure increases in funding are sustained and not one-offs,” Grady said.
“Failure to do so will leave the blame for the continued recruitment and retention crisis at the feet of both college leadership and government.”
Unison head of education Mike Short said colleges have had to axe thousands of jobs in the absence of sufficient government cash. “Ministers must invest in further education or young people won’t get the education they deserve. The economy will also miss out on the skilled workers it craves,” he said.
Jerry White, deputy principal of City College Norwich, told FE Week: “Across the sector we are all struggling with the levels of funding that we receive and have received over the last decade to pay rates that are, in many cases, competitive to the sectors you are trying to recruit people from.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said that FE teachers are needed across many subject areas. “That is why we have launched a national campaign to encourage industry professionals, particularly those in priority sectors such as construction and engineering, to teach in FE,” the department told FE Week.
“We will be investing an extra £1.6 billion in 16-to-19 education and training by 2024/25, compared with the 2021/22 financial year, which includes funding for colleges. This includes an up-front cash boost which will see the rate of funding per student boosted by over eight per cent in 2022/23.”