From education to employment

Latest cuts will hasten skills ‘timebomb’

As colleges and independent training providers across the country come to terms with the latest round of cuts to the adult skills budget, it’s interesting to highlight this in the context of other things we know about the UK economy and the key role skills plays.

It could be argued that college principals are biased and we have a vested interest in retaining the status quo. However, whichever way you look at the decision to make further cuts to the sector, it makes no logical sense.

Firstly, the Government’s industrial strategy clearly highlights the fact that the UK operates in a global marketplace and that for competitive advantage to be achieved, British firms need to produce high quality products and provide high quality services. It follows that for firms to deliver these aims, a highly qualified and skilled workforce is needed.

Secondly, much has been made recently of the fact that British workers are far less productive than their counterparts in other advanced nations. This acts as a drag on economic performance and closing this productivity gap would enhance the fortunes of individuals, firms and the country as a whole. Again, the need for investment in skills and qualifications is clear.

Thirdly, in many parts of the country a ‘demographic time-bomb’ is ticking. Here in the Tees Valley, labour market intelligence suggests that circa 120,000 people have gone to work today who won’t go to work in ten years’ time as there is an ageing workforce.

The intelligence highlights that many of these people are in high skilled jobs in key sectors such as gas and oil, chemical processing and advanced manufacturing. Much has also been made recently about the dearth of skilled people in the construction sector as this now starts to revive after the economic crash.

The Local Enterprise Partnership in this part of the world, Tees Valley Unlimited, highlights that this replacement demand is one of the biggest challenges the area faces. As with the first two points, this intelligence cries out for further investment in skills, not a reduction.

All college principals appreciate the fact that there’s less money in the public purse and to this I would say two things.

First, over the years many colleges have undertaken an economic impact assessment related to the work they do and these consistently show that investment in colleges generates wealth.

Second, the laissez-faire approach to the post-16 market place over the last five years has led to an influx of smaller providers in the form of academy sixth forms, UTCs and Free Schools. AoC research highlights many of these have not met their small enrolment targets and, in effect, are ’boutique’ colleges.

A review of these new entrants should take place with any having less than, say, 200 learners to be deemed as not viable. Furthermore, new providers should only be allowed to enter the post-16 marketplace where there is a demonstrable need in terms of a growing population or the existing provision is of a poor quality.

This may sound harsh, but we’re in tough times and new ways of thinking are needed to ensure scarce resources are spent wisely.

Overall, this latest decision makes no logical sense. It will impact on what colleges up and down the country can do to help those out of unemployment, to help those who are in work but who want to upskill and reskill, and to help those who want to gain the necessary qualifications to enter higher education – whether at their local college or university of their choice.

All 16 college principals in the North East took the unprecedented move last week to join forces, alongside the AoC and UCU, to campaign publicly about the 24% cut and we enjoyed significant media attention.

Regional daily The Journal gave this message to the Government in its opinion piece: “Revelations that adult education funding is to be cut by a quarter this year has led 16 North East colleges to unite. A lobby of Parliament is planned and college principals are urging business to back them. That’s a heady coalition and one which any Government would be wise to listen to.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Darren Hankey is principal and chief executive of Hartlepool College of Further Education

(Pictured L-R: Hartlepool College principal Darren Hankey, Bishop Auckland College principal Natalie Davison, East Durham College principal Suzanne Duncan)

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