Further education leaders have vowed to march on parliament if proposed cuts to Whitehall budgets hit the sector.
The Treasury will write to all government departments in the coming days to demand they find efficiency savings to reduce the level of borrowing needed in a bid to calm the financial market, according to reports.
The moves comes despite prime minister Liz Truss saying that she was “not planning public spending reductions” during the Conservative party’s leadership contest.
Leaders of colleges and training providers now fear that their frontline services, which are already under huge pressure because of high inflation, will bear the brunt of cuts to the Department for Education’s budget.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The idea of further cuts to college funding is chilling. After 12 years of underinvestment there is no fat to cut. Reduced funding would mean fewer courses on offer, lower hours of teaching, less student support and an even worse staffing crisis.”
Hughes also took to Twitter to say his membership body would organise a protest after Derwentside College principal Chris Todd tweeted: “If this [Whitehall cuts] comes to further education, after everything we’ve been through, I’m marching on the capital. Who’s with me?”
The University and College Union, Sixth Form Colleges Association and adult education provider network HOLEX all told FE Week they would join a sector-wide protest.
Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, said: “It would be a grotesque act of harm and deeply damaging to the life chances of those who rely on further education to announce further devastating cuts. If further cuts are visited on further education, UCU and its members will have no hesitation in taking to the streets.”
Bill Watkin, SFCA chief executive, added: “If the request to find efficiency savings leads to the possibility of cuts in frontline services we will respond in the strongest possible terms. Funding cuts would affect the whole of 16- to 19-year-olds education, so it would be important to respond with one voice. We saw from the Raise the Rate campaign what can be achieved when colleges, schools, students, and trade unions work closely together.
“We hope that common sense will prevail, but if it does not we will do everything we can to ensure that the government’s economic experiment does not damage the life chances of sixth form students.”
The DfE’s total departmental spending came to £102,897,000 in 2020-21, according to its most recently published accounts. It is not clear at this stage how much in savings each government department will be told to find by the Treasury.
Last year’s spending review pledged funding increases to 16- to 18-year-olds and adult education budgets.
But the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that due to significant cuts over the past decade, government spending will still be 25 per cent lower in 2024–25 than 2010–11 for adult education.
Per student spending in further education and sixth form colleges for 16- to 18-year-olds will also be 10 per cent lower by 2023-24 than when the Conservatives entered government, according to the IFS.
Sue Pember, the director of policy at HOLEX and a former DfE senior skills civil servant, said all services should be worried that the government is beginning to talk about cuts but she urged her counterparts to “not do the government’s work for them and use this exercise to create division in the wider education sector by suggesting some things are less important and therefore can be cut”.
“All the slack, if there was any, was cut out of the sector in 2012. What is left is the minimum needed to build a cohesive society and support economic growth.”
Pember added: “What we must do is work collectively to reiterate the importance of adult education and skills development in a period of recession. People are worried and they need support through learning new skills so they can ride out of this period of upheaval and set of unknowns.”
Jane Hickie, Association of Employment and Learning Providers chief executive, said her membership body is also “deeply concerned” with reports that cabinet ministers will be asked to find “efficiency savings” which are tantamount to funding cuts.
“The training provider sector can ill afford any more financial blows at this challenging time,” she said. “I hope the education secretary Kit Malthouse will make a strong case for continued – and ideally increased – investment in further education and skills.”