The principal of a large and well-established FE college writes about life at the top — the worries, the hopes, the people and the issues they have to deal with every day.

Wake up and smell the coffee

Professor Alison Wolf, architect of the government’s vocational education plans and labour market guru, says cuts to FE colleges and growth of universities could see the UK lose a valuable source of technicians and mechanics.

Britain’s supply of skilled workers may “vanish into history” if looming budget cuts in FE and the unchecked expansion of universities are allowed to continue.

She adds that “unstable, inefficient, untenable and unjust” funding is destroying education provision for school-leavers outside of universities. But let’s not get into the ‘University or us’ debate (we’ll lose that one) and ask the government to think long and hard about the value of FE and ‘who pays’.

FE provides the bulk of the UK’s post-secondary training and faces collapse and the loss of a valuable source of professionals and technicians.

Whither lifelong learning?

Adult education and training funding has been in freefall for some years with millions fewer learners and forced redundancies — averaging more than 100 staff per college since 2010 and climbing. A 24 per cent cut is pending for 15/16 and we’ll see another double digit cut in 16/17 unless Osborne pulls a budget rabbit out of the hat and/or the Comprehensive Spending Review throws us a lifeline in October.

FE colleges — already under budget pressures — face a further threat if the government takes resources from the FE budget to fund its plans to expand apprenticeships. The last remaining vestiges of the Adult Single budget (other) will be raided to feed apprenticeships, moving money away from where there’s abundant demand to where money has to be spent on marketing and advisers to boost demand.

Some solutions

FE colleges are the best place for technical and professional training that is business-facing and rooted in the local economy.

The FE sector has taken more than its share of the austerity cuts. Many colleges are in deficit and selling off the family silver just to survive. Please support us.

And consolidation (aka merger) doesn’t necessarily solve anything — witness the financial blackholes in some of the bigger colleges.

And I don’t sense any pressure to make schools more effective and efficient. Why are there more than 1,100 schools in this country with fewer than 100 learners in their sixth forms? Where’s the value for money and what’s the quality and learner experience like?! Wouldn’t these learners be better served in FE and sixth form colleges which offer a wider range of courses which relate to UK PLC? This would save money and reduce over-supply.

Less money more freedom

Reduce hypothecated funding which leads to underspend or rushed work. We want freedom to follow demand, let the customer decide. They know best not ministers (or principals).

If the taxpayer won’t pay then we’ve got to get the customer (or their bosses) to, so extend FE loans to level two and adults 19+ and above uncapped.

You do it for higher education so do it for FE

Let us charge for maths and English — if they are that important, learners should pay. We have discretion to waive fees for those who can’t afford to.

Don’t give the money to employers — there’s a conflict of interest, let them use their own training budgets; and scrap nonsense schemes like the Employer Ownership pilots and put them into FE budgets.

Governments should also switch other training budgets for example those at the Department for Work and Pensions to education and skills to avoid waste and duplication.

Liam Byrne, Shadow Skills Minister, said Wolf’s report is a wake-up call for the “brutal neglect” of the UK’s FE sector. He also famously left the ‘there’s no money left’ note for the incoming Coalition government in 2010. That’s still the problem. Everyone says they love FE, but no one wants to pay for it.

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