From education to employment

Sector reacts to FE manifesto promises

As the recession-hit nation prepares to vote in the closest General Election for many years, the FE sector has been scrutinising each political manifesto for clues to where the public sector axe will fall.

FE News invited education spokespeople from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and the Green Party to round-up their FE, skills and employability policies.

Chris Walden, public affairs director at the Association of Colleges (AoC), was delighted to see so many significant proposals about the future of colleges.

“More significantly, perhaps, the word ‘college’ has been used more often on its own rather than with in conjunction with schools,” said Mr Walden.

“Even more significant is that arguably the references are more substantive than they were in the 2005 manifestos. We believe this is as a consequence of the increasing government recognition of the valuable work that colleges do, both in terms of delivering high quality education and the work they are doing to help their local communities and the national economy recover from the recession.

“Allied to this is the significant number of visits to colleges by parliamentary candidates, including party leaders and those with an education brief.”

However, many in the sector were quick to criticise the public sector cuts that all main parties agreed would eventually be needed to plug the UK’s burgeoning deficit.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), which is backing strike action over cuts, said: “All politicians tell us that education is a priority – some used to repeat the mantra three times. However, rhetoric alone will not fund our colleges or students.

“We need clear commitments that the UK is not going to be left behind and all the parties need to identify how they will ensure that. Funding cuts and fewer staff will inevitably lead to some courses being axed, larger class sizes elsewhere and increased workloads for staff who survive the cull.

“Anyone who doesn’t think this will lead to a drop in the quality of education is seriously misguided. We now need to move forward and make it clear to politicians that talking tough on cuts is easier than dealing with their fallout.”

Alastair Thomson, principal advocacy officer at NIACE, the leading non-government body for lifelong learning, also criticised the political consensus on so-called “deficit fetishism”.

Mr Thomson said: “It took the UK more than 50 years to pay off the debts incurred by the end of the Second World War – so why the imperative to recover from bankers’ greed so fast? The sums are considerably larger and Greece provides a reminder that countries cannot live beyond their means indefinitely – but the new orthodoxy that the country must go through swingeing cuts to public services to bring down the deficit within five years is largely unchallenged.

“In their desire to be tough, responsible and prudent, the main party leaders display an odd mixture of machismo and masochism. This leads to a near-total lack of discussion about why, if health and international development budgets can be ring-fenced, education does not merit the same treatment.”

He warned against reducing public expenditure on lifelong learning, which would have far-reaching consequences.

“It would have the effect of reducing the UK’s economic competitiveness as well as resulting in higher costs in other areas of public policy such as health, criminal justice and community cohesion – quite apart from making us a less cultured and empowered society,” he said.

Although each of the main three parties had some policies worth applauding, many feel their manifestos lack the recognition the sector deserves.

Mr Thomson continued: “Labour are taking Part-Time HE students seriously, the Conservatives have promised a new £100 million Community Learning Fund and the Lib Dems have promised to scrap fees for all learners over-25, taking their first Level 3.

“Each are fine in isolation but in a country that spends £520 million a year on free TV licences for the over 75s but only £210 million a year on safeguarded adult learning there really needs to be more debate about what these kind of choices say about the kind of society we live in, or want to live in.”

Susannah Fairbairn

Read our FE, employability and skills manifesto round-ups here

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