How long can FE avoid the predictable results of unpredictable funding?

Only a return to predictable capital investment will prevent crises like the one engulfing schools from happening in our colleges, writes Jerry White

Only a return to predictable capital investment will prevent crises like the one engulfing schools from happening in our colleges, writes Jerry White

9 Sep 2023, 5:00

Amid the extensive attention given to the RAAC crisis gripping parliament and causing havoc for some schools’ start of term, one short sentence stood out for me. It came from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IfS) in one of their characteristically objective and insightful analyses. Next to a graph on the DfE’s capital investment in education, a simple line that reads: “Before 2020, almost all of the spending will have been focused on schools”.

It is surely a testament to the ingenuity, doggedness and determination of college estates teams and leaders up and down the country that no college is currently fully or partially shut because of RAAC.  To have maintained and improved the FE estate against a backdrop of public sector austerity and the complete absence of any recurring capital funding for well over a decade is a remarkable achievement.

I’m long enough in the tooth to remember the days of recurring FE capital grants. These were utilised to deliver carefully planned and scheduled maintenance programmes to improve our campuses and address emerging issues.  We knew that next year (and the year after that) we would get a similar investment.

This predictability allowed medium- and even longer-term planning (remember that?), keeping the vital infrastructure of our buildings and estates operating safely and providing the high-quality learning environments to meet our communities’ skills needs.  Flat roofs were replaced before they sprang leaks. Lifts were upgraded before they persistently broke down. Windows were double-glazed to improve energy efficiency and the quality of our learning environments. 

Then came austerity. Combined with the transfer of any remaining FE capital funding to Local Enterprise Partnerships, the past 12 years or so have been characterised by colleges competing with each other for small investment pots. And these pots weren’t for unglamorous things like flat roofs or lifts; they were earmarked for landmark buildings and skills centres that could be opened with a fanfare. 

We’ve managed to secure a number of these developments and they have made a significant difference to many students and apprentices. But having shiny new buildings while struggling to maintain existing ones has been a major headache.

Our campuses are assets that need regular investment

Others have written recently on one way the sector has coped, by utilising the appropriate accounting practices of depreciation to provide us with some of our own cash to reinvest. But that could never provide enough to keep up with the growing backlog of maintenance and improvements. 

A further reminder of the differential treatment of the FE sector comes from our annual allocations from HEFCE/OfS for our Higher Education provision. This includes recurring capital funding for this group of students.  

And of course, the DfE hasn’t been completely against funding capital maintenance in the post-16 sector. Local sixth forms have been getting small but regular capital investments every year while colleges have been wrapped in bidding rounds, costly capital bids, bureaucracy and, too often, disappointment.

The IfS report rightly notes the government’s recent (and very welcome) investment, primarily through the FE capital transformation fund. However, if colleges are going to ensure our estates can deal with emerging issues and remain safe and suitable learning environments, ministers need to address two key elements.

First, dropping investment on us with little or no warning and with very short delivery timescales means projects are chosen because they are possible rather than necessary. Capital investment needs careful planning and sufficient time to properly address the difficult and tricky issues present in all our estates.

Second, we can only properly manage the critical community assets which our colleges are with some level of predictability. Returning to annually funded capital investment would allow us to develop the medium- and maybe even long-term maintenance and improvement schedules that are required. Predictability would also provide us with a fighting chance of investing in the sustainability of our campuses – a critical agenda for our sector as well as government.

My thoughts are with education leaders wrestling with the awfully-timed RAAC crisis and mitigating its impact on their students, staff and communities. For the sake of all our learners, government must now recognise that our campuses are assets that need regular investment. Without it, history will only repeat itself.

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