Further education colleges are facing a financial ‘perfect storm’ says expert

The Public Accounts Committee has warned that continued cuts to further education colleges has  “potentially serious consequences for learners and local economies”. In their report, the Committee calls for more rapid intervention when colleges face financial difficulties. It says the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Skills Funding Agency “are not doing enough to help colleges address risks at an early stage”. 

Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said the government had been “desperately slow off the mark”. But Skills Minister Nick Boles said the government had protected funding for further education and colleges would be more financially resilient in future.

Here experts comment on the effects in the decline of finances on both learners and the local economy.

Comment from Dr Jonathan Tummons, School of Education, Durham University and expert in education and work based learning:

“FE has been underfunded – in comparison to schools and 6th forms – for many years, and the effects of this can be seen in two key areas. The first of these is curriculum provision: colleges select qualification schemes for primarily financial reasons, and not necessarily because the schemes in question represent robust, high quality pedagogic design with rigorous and reliable assessment regimes.

The second key area is the teaching staff. Staff turnover is too high: at the same time, the requirement for the teaching workforce to be professionally qualified has been removed – ostensibly for reasons of flexibility and local autonomy, but in reality for financial as well as ideological reasons.

We do not need to look ahead to note the impact of the decline in investment in the FE sector because it has been underfunded for so long. Already there are too many instances of students being pushed together in order to make a class financially viable, or of students being pushed onto courses that they are not yet ready for, or that are inappropriate in terms of aspiration or motivation. This does not make for good learning, or for good teaching. If colleges are to provide environments for learning that are authentic, are properly equipped, and are linked to the needs of local industry or business, then they require a level of funding commensurate with their importance to local economies.”

Comment from Mick Fletcher, who is a research fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is also a founding member of the Policy Consortium and writes about FE funding:

“The area review process is intended to ensure that the serious reductions in college budgets resulting from government cuts do not trigger the total collapse of some institutions. The PAC is right to point out that the education departments have been slow to see the the problem and that the area review process is seriously limited, not least by the exclusion of schools. It is important to note however that even if the reviews succeed there will still be a serious loss of capacity in the FE system that will damage oportunities for learners and communities.

The quality of provision for young people has been badly hit by the loss of most enrichment funding and a further 17.5 % cut in the rate paid for 18 year olds. These reduced budgets will now be frozen. Colleges are already reducing the study options available and will continue to do so.

The budget for adult skills has been cut by over 25% and colleges are now also suffering from the failure of the FE loans policy to transfer costs from the taxpayer to the student. Much of the loan allocation has not been taken up resulting in further contraction of the offer.

Although there has been some increased investment in apprenticeships industry will continue to complain about skill shortages in part because of the removal of opportunities for individuals to increase their skills through part time study. Investment in training by firms continues to fall. A simultaneous reduction in investment by individuals and the state will result in a ‘perfect storm’.”

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