A member of staff at an inner-city college recently told me: “We work with some of the most underprivileged communities in the country, yet our jobs and the courses we teach are under threat. Where is the logic in that?” There has never been a more important time to invest in further and adult education yet for many staff and students it promises to be a very bleak midwinter.
Figures released by the University and College Union (UCU) show that over 1,200 jobs are at risk across England and Wales from large city colleges like Newcastle to smaller community colleges like North Warwickshire and Hinkley.
These are just the losses we know about and may prove to be the tip of the iceberg, especially as the government has indicated that it plans to make more efficiency savings over the next two years.
The cuts come at the worst possible time. A recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded that ‘with employment markets still weak, now is a good time to invest in education.’ If only politicians were listening.
Further education has a proven track record of helping people to re-skill and improve their job prospects. A survey published over the summer by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) revealed a 7% rise in employment among learners who had studied at further education colleges with 93% of those questioned saying they had felt a 'lasting benefit' from completing their courses.
Key findings of the study revealed that:
- Among the 4,837 learners questioned more than half (53%) are currently engaged in work or learning – up 9% on the previous year
- There has been a 7% rise in the number of learners now in paid employment
- 93% of those questioned saying they had felt a 'lasting benefit' from studying in further education
- 13% of the learners questioned are 'new employees'
- 81% of those employed have permanent positions, with 78% planning to stay in their job for the next 12 months.
The report is further evidence of the vital role further education can play in helping to lift Britain out of the recession as people look to learn new skills and seek employment. Further education colleges work with some of the most vulnerable communities in the country and it is deeply concerning that so many institutions are looking to make cuts. Getting rid of courses and sacking staff will deprive many areas of a vital lifeline.
Tower Hamlets College is a perfect example. The college works with some of the most underprivileged groups in London but has announced plans to make job losses and halve the number of places on its Skills for Life programme, as well as getting rid of important outreach centres and student support services.
People living in Tower Hamlets, which has the highest unemployment of any borough in the UK, are going to be robbed of a vital lifeline at a time when demand for courses has never been higher. There are over 800 people on waiting lists to learn English at Tower Hamlets College who will now struggle to get a place. Where is the sense in that?
Further education colleges have been pioneers at widening participation – something very close to the government's heart – but they need funding in order to fulfill this vital role. We simply cannot afford to lose staff during tough economic times when people are looking to retrain.
The failure to properly fund the sector has left Britain with a rising number of young people not in employment, education or training (NEETS) and a benefits system which will inevitably be stretched by people who could actually benefit from being at college and university rather than on the dole.
The government has said it would not let education become a victim of the recession, but those warm words look rather hollow when put up against the hard facts.
There is a clear economic case to be made for investing in students. Aside from the obvious benefits of a more educated society, they are less likely to be a burden on the NHS and less likely to claim benefits. The run up to the general election is the perfect opportunity for parties to demonstrate their commitment to both education and helping people who want to try and restart their lives.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of UCU, the largest UK union for academic-related staff working in FE
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