Government departments are currently undertaking a Spending Review looking for savings and reshaping of services which would help the Treasury to save £20 billion. On 25 November, the Government will announce the results.
There is a target to cut the post-16 education budget by between 25% and 40% but it is difficult to see where £6 billion can be cut from in the next four years, without significant damage being caused.
AoC looked at this target and coupled with the austerity measures the country has experienced in the last six years. We devised 10 proposals to improve post-16 education and save money in the long term and submitted them to the Government as part of a consultation on the review.
Savings would be possible if the Government closed small sixth forms, reformed pensions in the public sector, tackled the national addiction to qualifications and extended student loans into further education.
At the same time we identified areas of post-16 education that cannot stand further cuts without having serious consequences - for example 16-18 funding levels. Funding levels for 16 to 18-year-olds are markedly lower than for 5 to 16-year-olds and have already experienced savage cuts. At a time when the Government is desperate to boost the skills of the UK workforce, it seems counter intuitive to introduce further cuts to college budgets. There must be caution about making short-term savings from mergers inspired by area reviews or devolution and the Government should instead look at longer-term funding agreements. The policy change which means all students who do not achieve a C grade in GCSE English and maths must continue to study until they do, has highlighted a shortage of specialist maths teachers and there must be a long-term joint Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills strategy to tackle this problem.
The Government should, however, be braver in its plans for an apprenticeship levy on all large employers and set it at 0.5% of payroll, but not in a way that involves a pound-for-pound withdrawal of the funding it provides.
Funding cuts will always be a challenge for colleges, but there are ways that they can be made more manageable. For instance, we're recommending to the Government that funding allocations be made on a three-year cycle. This ties in with the phase of the Spending Review, but also means that colleges can plan ahead and provide a better service for their students. Making funding cuts with no prior notice – as happened this summer when a further adult skills budget cut of 3.9% was announced at the end of term – just puts colleges under more pressure. The Spending Review will set Government budgets up to 2019-20. There is no reason why it should not be able to confirm the spending envelope for further education and skills for the same period. This would allow for colleges to plan their provision and seek to meet the needs of their local community and employers over the full period.
The Spending Review started months ago and will end well before Christmas. Ministers are prisoners of some manifesto promises that will constrain their options. I live in hope that there will be a rational discussion of the options the Government has available to it and a clear understanding that the combined impact of multiple spending cuts on certain parts of the UK education and skills system could be very damaging in the long term.
Ministers should consider the needs of colleges, and their students, and ensure that funding is protected in the same way it is for schools.
Julian Gravatt is assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges