We live in difficult times. With the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review pending on 20 October we are all expecting a particularly rough ride for Further and Higher Education. As President of the Association of Colleges I, and the AoC, have to take a view on how robust and challenging we should be with Government regarding the assumption that the FE sector is to suffer a terrible future of cuts and significant reductions to our grant allocations from the State.
The question we have to ask ourselves is how effective will we be if we scream and shout that we are a public service that is so important that we should not be affected by the reductions in public expenditure. More importantly who should we rail at to try and protect our sector? Who is are enemy, if indeed there is one? Is it the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department for Education (DfE)? Or is it the Treasury?
What do the Coalition Government’s Ministers in BIS – think about Colleges and how effective we are as a sector? (I have chosen BIS as it appears that it is this Department, as far as FE is concerned, that is facing the greatest pressure from the Treasury.) We know we have the understanding and support of key ministers; John Hayes MP, Minister of State for FE, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who has a foot both in BIS and DfE, has promised that for this Government our sector is “no longer the poor relation. Cinderella is going to the ball”. He has publicly stated that he sees Government’s primary role as being to create a framework which helps individuals and their employers to get the learning they want or need. He said: “People should not just be left floundering without education, employment or training. No one deserves to be broken on the wheel that revolves from a dead-end job to unemployment and back again.”
Fellow education Minister, David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, has also regularly gone on the record about his understanding and support for FE. In May, when new figures showed that there were 837,000 18 to 24-year-olds not in employment, education or training, he said: “We cannot afford that waste of human potential – it is bad for our economy and blights the lives of individuals. That is why we must provide a wide range of routes into further and higher education, including through high-quality apprenticeships.”
It is not just education Minsters who have been nailing their colours to the FE mast. Vince Cable MP, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, has said that he wants BIS to play a central role in putting Higher and Further Education on a sound footing for the future and linking both better into the economy. He has gone on the record as saying: “The reality is that our best FE colleges and advanced apprenticeships are delivering vocational education every bit as valuable for their students and the wider economy as the programmes provided by universities. This is not an issue of either/or. We need both. And we need to respect and celebrate both.”
He has compelling personal experience of the benefits FE can offer and said: “Education for education’s sake – learning how to learn – benefits the economy in the long term. Philistinism is bad economics. It is also fundamentally unacceptable.
“A story from my own life makes the point. My mother and father left school at 15 to work in factories. My father eventually taught building trades in the local technical college; we need more people like him. My mother was a housewife and when I was 10 she had a major nervous breakdown and spent time in a mental hospital. When she recovered she saved her mind through adult education – learning for the first time about history, literature, philosophy and art. We need more people like her too.”
Given the support demonstrated in such statements, it is clear that ministers value and understand the importance of what we do for our students and for the nation. One then has to question what is to be gained from attacking them over the potential financial cuts. Indeed, does our battle lie elsewhere?
I would argue that the real target of our campaign against further devastating cuts lies within the Treasury itself. AoC has been – and will continue – to focus its efforts on persuading Ministers and officials at the Treasury to take on board the critical contribution of Colleges to economic recovery and to social mobility – points they tend to overlook in favour of short-term goals and a quick-fix approach to balancing the books.
Ministers and the various senior civil servants and officers of the Skills Funding Agency know precisely our value and are quite capable of – or should be – fighting our corner with those in the Treasury tasked with making the most severe cost reductions in public services since WWII. Officers of the AoC spend a considerable amount of their working week discussing with staff and Ministers at BIS and DfE about how best to utilise resources, and strategies to improve the working environments of Colleges. We have seen significant success over the last few months and the movements towards a Single Adult Budget have arisen precisely because of good working relationships and the regular meetings that have taken place.
When reductions of expenditure are announced on 20 October we will continue to work with these Ministers and officials; the quality of our relationship with them is very important if we are to make the best of a difficult future. If we continually present ourselves as poorly-funded we are in danger of being seen as a whingeing sector by politicians. We also risk putting off adults and employers seeking to invest in their own training as they will see us as organisations with few resources and poor facilities and they may turn towards alternative training organisations.
To summarise this diagrammatically it is possible to show two alternative approaches to working with Government:
1. The Complaining Cycle of Diminishing Resources