Spring budget: Time for politicians to put money where their mouth is

It’s time to stop telling us ‘more needs to be done’ and start doing it, writes David Hughes. The spring budget must deliver on four key priorities

It’s time to stop telling us ‘more needs to be done’ and start doing it, writes David Hughes. The spring budget must deliver on four key priorities

11 Feb 2023, 5:00

The end of 2022 was a difficult time for college leaders to be optimistic about the future. Like leaders in every sector, they were trying to deal with soaring energy costs, high inflation, industrial unrest and political tumult. For colleges, though, it was worse than that, with the chancellor using his autumn statement to talk about the need for investing in skills – while then only increasing school funding.

The anger and dismay this caused was only topped by the unnecessarily hasty imposition of new borrowing controls, following the ONS decision to reclassify colleges as part of the public sector. Over 50 projects were thrown into abeyance as colleges were instructed to seek consent for commercial borrowing in the middle of well-thought-through and strategically important capital programmes. Many are still waiting for the green light.

None of this is new. Many warm words have been spoken about skills in the past few years. In 2018, Teresa May launched the review of post-18 education and funding at Derby College, resulting in a report which simply and lucidly concluded that post-18 education in England is “a story of both care and neglect, depending on whether students are among the 50 per cent of young people who participate in higher education (HE) or the rest”. The next prime minister pledged to support more people to learn technical skills and launched the misleadingly-named Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which sounds a lot better than it really is.

Liz Truss didn’t say much about skills, but then she didn’t have much time to. Her successor, on the other hand, has said lots. In his new year speech he (rightly) said that “….we need to stop seeing education as something that ends aged 18 – or that sees university as the only option. With more technical education, lifelong learning, and apprenticeships.” The chancellor also got into the spirit of warm words when he set out a clear need to do a lot more for “the 50 per cent of school leavers who do not go to university” and for the “nine million adults with low basic literacy or numeracy skills”.

Hope springs eternal that politicians will face up to the realities

Hope springs eternal that one day, one of these politicians will properly face up to some of the realities. Realities which show how far backwards we have gone over the past decade on investment in all of the things the government says it wants to prioritise. At today’s prices, the adult education budget was around £4.4billion in 2010. Today, it is around £1.5billion. Even the poster-boy apprenticeship programme has seen what the Sutton Trust called a “staggering decline” in numbers, falling by almost a quarter between 2017 and 2018, with higher falls in areas of high deprivation. There are many more similar statistics.

At the same time as the drop in overall funding, the funding rate per learner has not changed in over a decade. The average funding per adult learner in colleges is about £1,000 (compared with around £9,000 in universities). If that had risen with inflation since 2010, it would now sit at over £1,400.

No wonder we can all agree that “more needs to be done”. Our submission to the treasury ahead of the spring budget sets out the case and asks for actions in four areas: staffing challenges, financial viability, capital financing and borrowing, and realising the opportunities created by public sector status.

It’s a realistic and proportionate set of requests at a time when, quite simply, we want the chancellor to put his money where his mouth has been for some time now.

Colleges are vital, efficient and effective anchor institutions that need proper long-term investment. Yet they have been starved, overlooked and squeezed for 12 years. It really is time to do more for them, so that they can do more for the millions of people who rely on them for achieving their ambitions, realising their talents and getting on in life and work.

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