Clive Read, a partner and education specialist at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

Although teaching never stopped, the further education (FE) sector was impacted significantly by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Typically buzzing cultural hubs and key drivers for the local economy, institutions were forced to re-evaluate their entire operations and online teaching became the new normal. With many now resuming their services face to face, what does the future look like for the further education sector?

According to the latest report from the Association of Colleges (AOC), in 2020 the FE sector accounted for around 1.7 million students.

Providing those aged 16 and over with a non-traditional route into and education and work through vocational courses and apprenticeships, FE institutions play a vital role. Additionally, the strong relationships these institutions often have with surrounding businesses and communities make them key players in their regional economies. In disadvantaged areas colleges are particularly important, as they offer not just education and work opportunities, but also pastoral support, by providing free meals and access to services such as career workshops. This was made particularly evident during the pandemic, when many colleges provided computers and other resources to ensure students could continue with their studies during lockdown.
 
As university is not something that everyone can afford or wishes to do, further education plays a fundamental role in offering alternative educational opportunities. But despite this, FE can be overlooked by the Government when it comes to funding and support, with the sector often caught between schools and higher education.
 
This being said, some capital funding for campuses has been provided to help remedy the worst buildings. Colleges have also, with some notable successes, committed their energies to accessing new sources of funding such as the New Towns Fund and Capital transformation fund which should help revitalise towns across the UK.
 

At present, funding for the FE sector is complicated, due to the many different strands of education covered by the sector, including A-Levels, higher education, apprenticeships and adult education to name a few.

The current funding scheme is split between each strand, which makes forecasting and modelling cash-flows a genuine challenge. In addition, long-term (or even medium-term) planning can be subject to the vagaries of Government changes such as apprenticeships and the roll out of T levels. It is to be hoped that the proposed funding simplifications mentioned in the Skills for Jobs white paper will ease the operational and logistical burden.
 
The difficulties around funding have been further highlighted by Covid-19, which left resources and services stretched as educational institutions were forced to operate remotely. The sector has been used to never-ending change and the adaptability and resilience shown by colleges, their staff, and students in such unprecedented times provides hope for the future. Post-pandemic, many FE institutions have found themselves in need of a further funding boost to support their recovery.
 
For some, this cash is needed to support campus improvements. With localised competition becoming an increasing issue for the FE sector, institutions are having to reconsider how they can enhance the student experience and ensure they are fit for purpose. For many, this includes estate improvements, as well as equipment and resource upgrades.
 

Part of offering this enhanced student experience involves attracting and retaining top teaching talent.

Due to the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, there has been a significant decline in the number of teaching roles in the UK. As the economic market improves, this is likely to return to normal, so funding and employee engagement will be crucial for retaining top talent and is one of the key facets outlined in the white paper. Proactive colleges are already engaging with local businesses, LEPS, chambers of commerce and similar bodies more than ever before to ensure their curriculums are relevant to business needs.
 
It goes without saying that education will never be the same after the pandemic. Ways of working have changed, as have the likely jobs that will be needed in the future. Colleges are at the heart of the skills debate and the White Paper offers a timely opportunity to recognise the strategic importance the sector plays and will play in the future success of UK PLC. Let’s also hope that the changes to the ministerial team now over-seeing the FE sector, recognise and reward institutions for the great work they do.
 
Clive Read is a partner and education specialist at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

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