From education to employment

Will it be Happy New Year for FE?

Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College

It is going to be an interesting year. The Government’s demand-led skills strategy will be given a boost when the announcement is made about funding for apprenticeships. This announcement is due this month. If money is going to the demand side at a time of austerity then that usually means a cash cull of the supply side. Sure enough the latest ‘cut’ was announced last month whereby 18 year-olds would receive 17.5% less funding for their full time courses on the basis they had already (presumably) spent two years being given state funds to pursue their education.

The latest reductions in funding allocation came in a letter from the Education Funding Agency (EFA) on 10 December. The uproar from College Principals was deafening. ‘Enough is enough’ seems to have been the message and representations are being made as I write.

This made me think that 2014 might be a very uphill struggle for the Government in convincing people of the need for more cuts. When the economy wasn’t growing between 2010 and 2013 the need for pain was readily accepted by many. If people never believed we were all in this together they did seem to credit George Osborne and David Cameron as being the best guardians of the public purse. George Osborne’s destruction of the last Government’s economic record had worked. It was Labour not the banks that had bankrupted us all. The fact that Labour’s leadership campaign was in full swing and this easy-to-tell-if-slightly-economic-with-the-truth narrative was allowed to run unopposed hardly minimises the campaign’s political success. The debate about who could be trusted to get growth going had been won hands down by the Government.

Osborne announced over £100 billion worth of deficit reduction measures in the Autumn of 2010 on a ratio of 20% tax increases to 80% public sector funding cuts. Nobody had tried to cut public spending more quickly or more deeply. By pruning the state the private sector would have the elbow room to grow was his argument for such drastic slashing. Only economists, the Labour opposition and those on any form of working age benefit were interested in arguing that there were other ways of getting to the same end. Broadly speaking many sectors of society accepted the need for drastic retrenchment when the going was tough and growth was non-existent.

Now in early 2014 the economic landscape has changed. Understandably the Government is claiming credit for bringing growth storming back. 1.2 million new private sector jobs (quite a few of them in re-badged ‘private sector’ FE Colleges) points to a plan that has worked. But the old narrative of the need for pain and continuing austerity has not gone away. Indeed many of the cuts were ‘back-ended’ and are only just being felt now. Moreover because growth has been so historically slow to return more cuts are needed in the future. Thus the Chancellor announced this month that a further £25 billion was needed to balance the books after the next general election in 2015. Of course half would come from the working or workless poor in receipt of any form of welfare benefit. The rest would be culled from on -going cuts to non-ring-fenced public spending such as FE.

But do these two narratives really mix well? Personally I think the answer is no. If the media and government are trumpeting the return of the good times it is far harder for the government to sell the idea of continuing cuts. The growth narrative thus becomes a petard on which the government’s ‘shrinking the state’ agenda could be hoist. If too many parts of the economy (after all public sector workers alone still make up a sizeable 17% or so of all workers) are still suffering as growth returns, the argument that we are all sharing in the pain quickly dissipates.

This perhaps may have been the gut feeling of those in FE who have reacted so angrily to the pre-Christmas announcement on 18-year-olds funding from September 2014. ‘Enough is enough’ is a justifiable reaction against a backdrop of uneven educational spend across sectors and for a cohort where deprivation often looms large. And this is where the attempt to fast track demand-led solutions to skills strategy intersects. For the government is not promising nothing. Far from it – their logic is impeccable. The state has a duty to invest in young people up to the age of 18 and to a base qualification at level 3. Anything more then the individual (usually through accessing loan finance if a level 4 course) and employers should bear the burden. But have employers realised this? Will they play ball? Will they too feel that now that growth has returned so should government spending?

Nick Isles is deputy principal of Milton Keynes College – follow him on Twitter at @dpmkcollege

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