From education to employment

Is cutting adult skills budgets the right move pre-election?

Nick Isles is deputy principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College

The answer to that question has to be a resounding no. Indeed it should be a resounding no at any time of year and especially before an election. Certainly the sector as a whole has not adopted its usual tone of phlegmatic resignation. There is an active backlash going on and Nick Boles, our skills minister, is doing quite a bit of meeting local MPs on the subject. The budget this week may contain a surprise in this area. Then again it may not.

Of course the government claim it is a modest cut given that apprenticeships, English and maths, traineeships and other elements of the adult skills budget are protected from the cut. But this only means a more swingeing cut for the rest of the budget. On some estimates by over 30% – or 24% if you take the Association of Colleges figures.

The result of the cut means there is now a lacuna in funding for many 19-23-year-olds. Treated differently from their university colleagues, who can access loans, this group can either compete for the dwindling state funding available to pursue the vocational qualification they want to, or cough up themselves. Which is the whole point of the exercise. For the government do not believe the public purse should really be supporting a whole range of courses that it believes either employers or individuals should be paying for. Austerity means you can drive through a neat argument. ‘We cannot afford it’ masks the argument that ‘we really do not believe we should be paying for it’.

Personally I believe that the retreat of the state from funding education will come back to bite us hard. We already have a major productivity problem in the UK and employers are unlikely in a market-led voluntarist system to step up. Nor is it likely that cash-strapped individuals will find the money to pay for something that is likely to further their careers even though they may understand this. Cash-strapped means exactly that.

Apologists for the cut point to the fact that people can do apprenticeships while ignoring the uncomfortable truth that apprenticeship numbers for the under 25s have been at best stable and in some cases decreased recently. They are growing for over 25s and over 50s as employers see them as cheap training options for existing employees. This is miles away from the original idea of an apprentice. Not that I am knocking apprenticeships. At their best they are indeed the ‘gold standard’ for work-based learning. But therein lies the rub. Too many are not ‘at their best’.

A better solution in imposing the cut would have been to allow local institutions to use the funding in the way they believed would deliver the optimal outcomes for their local stakeholders and customers. This is why we need to give more control to local institutions over skills spending. The money is spent locally and therefore it is local taxpayers whether businesses or individuals who need the greatest say.

Take an example of one sector my college is working in – health and social care. They are largely indifferent to apprenticeships as a route to training their new recruits. They seem just as happy – if not more content – with work- based NVQ style qualifications. The government must build on the lead it has taken with Greater Manchester and other core cities and devolve the skills budget to local stakeholder groups. The Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS) could have a clear role to play in managing such an approach.

What such a cut means for Milton Keynes College, like many colleges, is a reduction in funding of around £1million or 5% of our total campus budget. This comes on top of already anticipated rises in pensions and National Insurance costs. For us this will affect a potential 250 full time students aged 19 plus or up to 1,300 adults who are doing a typical part-time course. The actual number will depend on the mix of people wanting to study with us. Similar figures will be replicated up-and-down the country.

The local economy has seen strong growth in engineering and construction. Those sectors are demanding more qualified, skilled tradespeople. In the business of co-production it is usual for each partner to bring something to the table. It is just good manners. Our ability to do this with our business partners will be consequently reduced.

But clearly this cut, announced at this time, two months before an election is not seen as having too great an electoral impact. Perhaps that is the right calculation. But maybe, just maybe, it will prove to be decisive in those few marginal seats where the votes of people who use their local college will really count.

Nick Isles is deputy principal and chief executive of Milton Keynes College

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