David Hughes

chief executive, Association of Colleges

As a leader, the job is not to be hopeless but find a way through

The fifth national Colleges Week comes in a time of turbulence in Westminster. Shane Chowen sits down with David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, to talk campaigning and what’s next for the movement.

Colleges have enjoyed a few years in the limelight now. The Colleges Week campaign has no doubt helped by giving colleges, and the AoC, a hook to draw in and win around MPs and influencers.

Colleges Week was born in anger, David Hughes told a reception in parliament this Tuesday. The anger and disappointment at being “so close” to finalising a special pay deal for college staff in 2018, which was canned at the last minute by a certain then-Treasury minister Liz Truss, catalysed a noisier campaigning strategy from the usually mild-mannered trade body.

“No more Mr Nice Guy” read the FE Week headlines at the time, reporting on Hughes’ switch to a more direct strategy.

So much so that just months after that fateful summer in 2018, a rare alliance between the AoC and the trade unions mobilised thousands for a march on parliament calling for investment in further education. Teachers and students marched side by side with their principals. It was quite the sight to behold.

Fast forward four years and the Colleges Week campaigning strategy is notably less rebellious, and the sector arguably more fractured.

This year’s event coincides with the fourth week of walkouts in dozens of colleges across the country over low pay in the face of the cost-of-living crisis. A far cry from the solidarity and collectivism shown in 2018 when Hughes spoke passionately alongside union leaders and opposition MPs like Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner atop a double decker bus in parliament square, slating the government’s record on FE.

There are no major campaigning events this year, but colleges have been encouraged to “engage” with MPs and stakeholder locally, and post on social media using the #CollegesWeek hashtag.

Hughes addressing the 2022 Colleges Week parliamentary reception

I arrive at the AoC’s central London offices the day after the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, warned the House of Commons of “eye-wateringly difficult” decisions to come on public spending, keen to see which David Hughes I’ll be greeted by.

Will I get the pragmatic ‘Mr Nice Guy’ focussed on influencing through conciliatory relationship building with ministers and officials, or will I get the activist that once mobilised thousands to march behind the cause?

He starts reflectively.

“I’ve been at AoC for sixth years and I’m on my seventh secretary of state in that time. That’s quite phenomenal, isn’t it? The thing I keep clinging on to, and it is hard, is to not become hopeless. As a leader the job is not to be hopeless, you’ve got to try and find a way through.”

One reason to be hopeful is that, unlike in 2010, colleges have successfully positioned themselves as an economic priority. It was always “unlikely”, Hughes tells me, that colleges will ever have been a political priority in education against the scale and lobbying power of schools, early years and universities.

“But economically, we’ve repositioned colleges centrally in that skills role. You’ve got a skills directorate now at DfE with a director general absolutely on our case and working with us. We’re not on our own. We’re not isolated like we were in the austerity era of 2010-2011. And I think we’ve got more champions in Whitehall than we’ve ever had.”

Building those relationships has delivered results. The spending review last November delivered the first funding increase of any substance in years was “promising, not brilliant” for colleges, he says.

Even this July, Hughes says, then education secretary Nadhim Zahawi was due to meet with then chancellor Rishi Sunak to talk about how to finally exempt FE colleges from VAT and invest in college staff. “So, there was no need to do marches. We had the education secretary fighting for us.”

However, that meeting never took place. Sunak, and then Zahawi, both resigned that week triggering the end of Boris Johnson’s premiership.

Colleges emergency cash

The short-term situation looks miserable, Hughes admits. Inflation has all but cancelled out any of the funding increases and colleges again face massive financial challenges.

“I’m really worried about that. But I’m also realistic. We’ve got to defend what colleges have got already at the very least, because we’re not going to get any more money I don’t think. That just feels unrealistic now. And I’ve not thought that for years.”

Despite his despair, Hughes has presented his wish list in a recent letter to current education secretary, Kit Malthouse. He wants a workforce fund to increase staff pay, more bursary funding for students that are struggling, and capital funds aimed at improving the energy efficiency of college estates.

Another difference between now and the austerity of the 2010s is the already volatile and vulnerable state of college finances. Over the last decade colleges have merged, buildings and land have been sold, and three colleges have gone insolvent and closed their doors for good.

South Essex College announced last month it will close on Fridays to help save money in the face of a likely doubling of its energy bills.

Hughes doesn’t think there will be any more insolvencies, but admits the 2022-23 will see some colleges in “really difficult” circumstances, to the point where emergency cash may once again be needed for even more restructuring.

All of that sounds bleak, but all I’ve heard about so far in response is exchanges of letters with multiple secretaries of state and discussions with civil servants. I recall the drizzly October afternoon in 2018 atop that double decker bus and ask directly and suggest to Hughes that he’s softened up since then.

Colleges Week 2018

“I don’t think so,” he says, “I’m still saying the same things. There’s always a difficult line to tread in these roles. It’s kind of seductive to be able to stand on a platform and shout at the government but actually, I don’t know, it just doesn’t work. There’s a time and place.”

“So, I don’t think I’ve gone soft. I think we’ve been sailing with a tailwind.”

“We’re seriously considering another march on parliament in April or May next year because I think things are going to get worse this winter and there’s a point where you say ‘enough is enough’. For the first time in five or six years, we’ve got a prime minister and a chancellor that don’t get the skills agenda.”

Union relationship strained

Has one of the consequences of Hughes’ more pragmatic approach in recent years led to a breakdown of the coalition of supporters he built in 2018?

A few weeks ago I met with lecturers from a north west college that were on strike. They told me that the days of principals and teachers feeling like they were on the same side were long gone. I ask Hughes if he thinks he should have worked harder to keep the sector united.

He describes UCU’s recent strike action in colleges as intentionally “very aggressive and confrontational”.

“There isn’t a college in the country that is paying [staff] less than it can. And there isn’t a college leader in the country who thinks that they’re paying enough. But they’ve got a tough job to balance the books. If your energy costs go up two or three times in an organisation with virtually no margin, that’s bloody hard.”

Campaigning side by side again with UCU looks implausible at this point.

When I ask Hughes what his relationship is like with the UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, it’s the first time in our interview where there’s a palpable pause before answering.

“It’s quite distant,” he says carefully. The approach of the UCU’s FE committee “is very clearly to get their members out on strike as much as possible because that way they’ll win the most for their members. I don’t blame them. Inflation is shattering people’s household finances. But it’s very difficult for any employer to be giving 10 per cent pay rises.”

Grady has been visiting picket lines at colleges over the last few weeks and it’s been principals in the firing line via her megaphone. Addressing striking lecturers at City College Plymouth earlier this month, Grady described the former principal of Nottingham College as an “atrocious man” for, in her words, attempting “fire and rehire” tactics, and called on her members to “make Jackie’s [the City College Plymouth principal] life a living hell.”

“I don’t think attacking an individual in that way is acceptable,” Hughes said.

The ‘unfortunate’ comments

Grady’s comments in Plymouth were especially “unfortunate”. In December 2018, the sector was shaken with the news that the former principal at City College Plymouth, Garry Phillips, had taken his life weeks after resigning from his role at the college. 

His resignation came shortly after a union vote of no confidence and the college corporation said in a statement at the time that “external pressures on the corporation and on Garry have become a material distraction to the college’s core purpose”.

“I think given the recent history at Plymouth, with Garry, it was a really unfortunate thing to say. I would ask Jo to reflect on that kind of language.” Should she apologise, I ask. “She should”, Hughes replies, “but I don’t think she will”.

FE Week contacted UCU for a response to Hughes’ call for an apology. A spokesperson said: “Taking picket line speeches out of context and suggesting that a general secretary encouraging members to put their employer under pressure is equivalent to inciting a workplace suicide is not only insensitive but a vulgar weaponisation of mental health.

“Rather than trying to distract from the dispute, the Association of Colleges and college principals should raise pay and protect their staff from the deepening cost of living crisis.”

Colleges’ future could be public sector, but should be tertiary

Alongside budget pressures, college leaders are also preparing in the background for the possibility of being reclassified as public sector organisations.

The Office for National Statistics launched its reclassification review in May and is due to conclude at the end of this month, potentially ending a decade of colleges being classified as private sector organisations.

Hughes is careful not to land on a firm for-or-against position on reclassification. “There are pros and cons to both, right”, he explains “and we literally can’t influence the the ONS’ judgement. We’ve met with them several times to inform the process. That’s all we can do on that front. I’m being neutral because there’s no other position to take.”

A “good deal” from reclassification to the public sector could help ease some of the current cost pressures on colleges without costing the DfE any money. A guarantee on local government pensions for colleges, as it does for academies according to Hughes, for example could reduce costs significantly. Other upsides could include hefty VAT rebates and a fairer payment mechanism through the ESFA. All of which are being looked at, Hughes says.

A bad deal though could include even more control over colleges’ accounts, their ability to borrow, who can be on a board to sign them off and what happens to reserves.

If that happens, Hughes says he will lobby ministers to reverse the legislative changes that triggered the ONS review, to then in turn trigger another review to reclassify back to the private sector. “There are some companies telling colleges to hide their reserves in some kind of charitable trust in case DfE decides to take them away. Which they could. But I don’t think they will.”

“We’re being completely opportunistic,” Hughes says. “It’s within the gift of DfE to do all those good things for colleges whether they are private or public.”

Hughes’ plans for a possible future labour government offer some insight into his thinking on how the skills system should be work on the ground. The AoC, along with their counterpart for the training provider sector, AELP, and City and Guilds launched the ‘future skills coalition’ this week; an attempt to present the next government with a united policy position.

“I don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favours in the last year or two by having too many voices saying slightly different things,” Hughes says.

Part of that united position should be a more united tertiary system with colleges, training and providers and universities working much more closely, essentially eliminating competition on the ground between providers.

Hughes admits that the new coalition will involve some tough discussions, but seems convinced that there don’t have to be any losers.

“We’ve agreed with AELP and City and Guilds that there’s a big win for everybody if we get this right, which means the government stepping forward with better investment for the whole sector, and then everyone getting a share of that. And let’s not worry about whether it goes to a college, or an ITP, or an adult ed provider.

“I think mature organisations in both the college and the ITP sector will think this is a good idea. There will be some worries, I get that, but our job is to try and show that it can work.”

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