Election 2024: ‘Conspiracy of silence’ over unprotected public service cuts

Economists warn that FE is likely to suffer from both main parties' plans

Economists warn that FE is likely to suffer from both main parties' plans

Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in a “conspiracy of silence” on billions of pounds of cuts in unprotected public services, such as further education, leading economists have warned.   

Both parties, with the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, published their manifestos this week providing some insight into their plans if they win the keys to Downing Street.   

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer continue to face tough questions about their tax and spending plans in the face of a tottering economy, rising national debt and low growth.   

Both parties have costed additional spending commitments by bringing in money for something specific, such as Labour’s plans to fund 6,500 school teachers from VAT on private schools, or scrapping things, such as the Conservatives’ plan to fund extra apprenticeships by shutting “low-quality” degrees.  

Economists have warned further education is among several public services likely to suffer cuts because of expensive commitments made on protected services such as the NHS and defence and green investment.   

The Resolution Foundation last week said £19 billion of cuts was needed from unprotected budgets for any new government to meet national debt targets by the end of the next parliament. One of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ “fiscal rules” is for debt to fall over that time.   

Responding to Labour’s manifesto, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) director Paul Johnson said: “Like the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Labour continues in a conspiracy of silence on the difficulties they would face.  

“On current forecasts, and especially with an extra £17.5 billion borrowing over five years to fund [Labour’s] green prosperity plan, this leaves literally no room – within the fiscal rule Labour signed up – for any more spending than planned by the current government. And those plans do involve cuts both to investment spending and to spending on unprotected public services.”  

Where will the money come from? 

This will offer little hope for colleges and training providers looking for increases to per-student funding without, as Johnson puts it, “surprise growth” in the economy.  

Bee Boileau, research economist at the IFS, singled out further education, prisons and courts as unprotected services “likely to be seriously squeezed, facing real-terms cuts that look inconsistent with [Labour] manifesto’s stated ambitions in these areas”.  

At the last budget, Learning and Work Institute chief executive Stephen Evans predicted the adult skills budget’s share of the unprotected spending cuts would be about £380 million, on top of the £1 billion already cut from the sector since 2010.   

Whoever becomes the next education secretary will have to make tough decisions on what they will spend their money on.   

Funding from falling school pupil numbers would most likely be earmarked to school-related spending, rather than be redirected to post-16 because it is a protected service.  

Below-inflation funding increases in further education funding have already contributed to a rising pay gap between school and college teachers of about £9,000, with an even larger gap between teachers in schools and independent training providers.   

David Hughes, chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said the pay gap was “unacceptable”.  

“We want to see the next government seriously commit to investing in FE, its students and its workforce. If Labour does form the next government, I look forward to working with them to eradicate this gap, and reverse the chronic underfunding suffered by the sector.” 

Meanwhile the apprenticeship levy is set to raise a record annual £4.6 billion by the end of the next parliament, but neither party has confirmed how much of that would be spent on training, and how much would be redirected elsewhere.  

The Association of Employment and Learning Providers’ election manifesto, also published this week, called for the next government to spend everything it raises through the levy on apprenticeships and skills. Its chief executive, Ben Rowland, said the sector “still lacks sufficient funding and ideas to improve [apprenticeship] achievement rates, support small and medium-sized employers, and address the decline of young people taking on an apprenticeship”.  

But Labour will change the levy so funding can be spent on non-apprenticeship training, potentially freeing up funding for courses previously funded by the DfE’s other budgets. The shadow education secretary recently announced that 3 per cent of levy funds would pay for 150,000 pre-apprenticeship traineeship courses.   

Non-apprenticeship levy funds could also be used to fund Labour’s “youth guarantee” of a job, apprenticeship or training for every 18 to 21-year-old. This wasn’t costed in the party’s manifesto.   

Johnson added: “Delivering genuine change will almost certainly require putting actual resources on the table. And Labour’s manifesto offers no indication that there is a plan for where the money would come from.” 

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