From education to employment

Where have all the adults gone?

As college principals digest the early information on funding allocations for 2010/11 adult provision, the prevailing mood is one of anger. Cuts are at best ten per cent and at worst 25 per cent of current levels. The Association of Colleges (AoC) is trying to establish where the money has gone and how efficiency cuts, which we believe will impact on the unit of resource, and the protection of front line services have brought us here.

Colleges have been caught between and rock and a hard place and face some impossible choices. At a time when we are being encouraged to help Britain beat the recession we are facing the prospect of having to cut courses for adults, including those who have been made redundant and people trying to re-skill in a tough job market. Colleges fully understand how tight the public purse strings are but don’t want to lose high quality courses that are crucial to Britain’s economic recovery.

To see only a ten per cent cut means that in 08/09, the baseline year for the decision, colleges must have been delivering 100 per cent of so-called ‘priority work’. When you look at which courses are not considered a ‘priority’ and therefore no longer fundable, then for St Helens College in the coming year we will not be able to run Level 3 in Construction, particularly in building services, Levels 2 and 3 in Youth Work and Level 3 in Floristry. Elsewhere so-called ‘non-priority’ courses include aeronautical engineering, dental technician qualifications and the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ programme. For a course to become a priority the relevant Sector Skills Council has to support the qualification’s inclusion in the new curriculum framework. It is important to note that the new Skills Funding Agency is receiving cases from individual colleges to try to remedy the situation, but the final decisions will only be known at the end of March.

It is easy to overlook the fact that all colleges must cut at least ten per cent of their priority provision. The average cut based on information gathered in an initial AoC survey seems to be about 16 per cent. It is disingenuous of Government to claim that this will not impact on participation.

Government and its agencies need to be transparent about the consequences of this decision; if you cut budgets then you must accept that, even with the best will in the world, colleges won’t be able to enrol and teach the same number of students.

We understand that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) believe that a maximum cut of 25 per cent protects colleges with 40 per cent to 50 per cent non-priority work. Even if this were to be the case then how did the LSC allow this to happen? Why were colleges funded differently in different regions? Why was there so little transparency over this issue?

In talking of percentages let us not forget how much is at stake here. For large Further Education colleges the cuts are typically between £800,000 and £3.6 million. These cuts will have an impact, not only on the students and the communities colleges serve so well, but also on Government’s own ambitions for Further and Higher Education. We are by far the biggest providers of vocational training in Britain with almost half (45 per cent) of all vocational qualifications awarded via colleges. Any suggestion that colleges can keep the same number of adult students by simply expanding the number of fee-paying places ignores the current economic climate and people’s ability to pay.

This will impact on jobs as well as learning opportunities. A first trawl of our members suggests that some 7,000 jobs are at risk in English colleges. This is in stark contrast to the protection of jobs in the funding agencies and government departments.

College principals will no doubt rise to the challenge of attempting to find ways to deliver more for less, so what are our key messages to the policy makers? Firstly there must be a mature dialogue over the impact of the cuts. It is self evident that we cannot deliver the same levels of participation at these reduced levels of funding. We could, however, go a long way towards mitigating the impact of the cuts if we are trusted to use our budgets flexibly; with full virement but also accountability. The AoC is calling on government to allow colleges to be more flexible with their funding so that they can help support these courses where possible by transferring money between budgets – something they are not allowed to do currently. Finally Colleges, in terms of both our staff and students must be given a voice in the process of curriculum reform.

Pat Bacon is president of the Association of Colleges, representing FE, Sixth Form and Tertiary colleges across Great Britain

Read other FE News articles by Pat Bacon:

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