Warm words from the Conservative Party conference must be matched with money

9 Oct 2021, 6:00

The Conservative Party Conference needed to show some real investment, writes David Hughes

The rainstorms lashing through Manchester were a fitting setting for the Conservative Party conference this year. The party was facing challenges on gas prices, petrol, HGV driver shortages and cuts to Universal Credit.

The fringe programme seemed awash with sessions on post-16 education and training and a skills-led recovery from the pandemic, but perhaps I was just seeking them out.

What I did hear, however, time and again, in the fringe events and in several meetings with politicians and advisers, was a surprisingly full grasp of the need to properly fund colleges.

I even heard several university vice-chancellors saying the same ̶ how things change.

None of that was much of a surprise because the prominence of colleges has been growing rapidly over the past couple of years.

What was more surprising, though, was the prime minister articulating an explicit vision for the UK to move to become a high-skill, high-wage economy.

It’s hard to argue with the ambition for the system to “allow people of talent to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs”.

It’s even harder to disagree with his pledge to invest in skills, skills, skills.

The big question college leaders are asking is, what does this signal for the spending review this month?

Our spending review submission should provide suggestions for the urgent and short term, and for the long-term investments to move the economy in the direction the PM wishes.

We structured our submission around the urgent need to ensure a successful recovery, while addressing the longer-term ambitions for a stronger and more inclusive economy driving towards carbon net zero.

But we also made it clear that colleges need proper and fair investment if they are to have the capacity to deliver on these ambitions.

So, we have provided a simple and affordable investment plan for colleges for the chancellor to consider.

But my fear is that the PM’s eyes are solely fastened on the high-level skills that our economy undoubtedly needs.

It would be easy for the chancellor to follow this with a shift of resources away from universities and towards the technical skills at level 4 and 5 in colleges.

Not only would that damage our universities, it would not go anywhere near delivering the sort of economy the PM wants.

The facts speak for themselves: more than nine million adults have literacy and numeracy needs; more than one-third of young people don’t have a level 3 as they enter adulthood; learning opportunities for adults more than halved in the past decade; educational inequalities worsened in the pandemic; college funding per student has not increased for over a decade.

Meanwhile, hours of teaching for young people have been eroded to around 15 per week compared with 25 to 30 hours in most OECD countries, and staff pay in colleges is around £9,000 lower than in schools.

I could go on.

The two big takeaways are the need to invest more in young people and adults at all levels, and to invest in colleges so that they can deliver the overall ambition in the long term.

My hopes are that the PM’s vision is backed by the investment colleges and communities need. He sounded serious in his conference address about this.

The trouble is that college leaders have got fed up with warm words and no funding.

College leaders have got fed up with no funding

We have accepted that the pandemic interrupted the modest step forward in the September 2019 spending round. At the time, the then chancellor recognised our arguments, so we have to hope that this spending review does too.

As a sector we have been patient, delivered with incredible efficiency, adapted rapidly in the pandemic and shown how willing we are to work with the government to reform the system.

Now our skilled staff must be properly paid, with the right kit and facilities to deliver high-quality education to more communities. For that, we need the investment.

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