Bleak future for skills training without national cooperation

Wed 19 Nov 2014

Blog by Dr Julie Mills - Principal, Milton Keynes College

FE has seen its funding plunge by 22% over the past five years.  A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested a further eye-watering 30% may have to come off public budgets if deficit reduction targets are to be met.  It is a sobering thought that in spite of all the individual and collective misery endured to date, the cuts made so far, the IFS says, “were expected to save £19bn in 2014/15 when compared to 2010/11, [but] will only save £2.5bn after adjusting for Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation.”

The government often reminds us that “education” has been ring-fenced from the worst of the financial squeeze.  What that actually means is that schools have been largely spared.  This somehow translates into the protection of education for sixteen and seventeen year olds if they’re in school, but not if they’re studying at college.  When challenged on this Mr Boles said there was definitely an argument to be had as to whether the ring fence should be extended to include FE.  Mr Byrne was unable to commit to any specific level of protection for education at all.  It’s interesting to note here that in the state system spending per pupil falls after the age of sixteen whereas in the private sector it increases.  If that isn’t a situation guaranteed to reduce social mobility it’s difficult to imagine one which is.

The writing is on the wall in letters twelve feet high.  Last year the government appointed a Commissioner for Further Education, Dr David Collins.  His job is to go into colleges graded “inadequate” by Ofsted, ones which fail to meet national performance standards and ones in poor financial health.  Of the eleven where he has intervened to date the vast majority have had money problems rather than issues of quality.  He is predicting a further twenty will need his attention next year.  That means that within the sector one in six colleges haven’t cut their costs quickly or deeply enough or have tried strategies to deal with reduced funding levels which simply haven’t worked.  Where cuts have apparently been made successfully (as in Milton Keynes) there is no room left for manoeuvre.  Further reductions of 30% will cut right down to the bone.  When that happens it all becomes a question of margins.  Colleges will have to identify which courses are cheapest to run.  The answer is of course those which are entirely classroom-based, so more expensive options which need workshops or expensive IT will be dropped.  We’re told the country is crying out for engineers yet we’re facing a situation where we won’t be able to afford to train them.

If anyone is in any doubt about the seriousness of the skills shortage comparison with the rest of Europe is daunting and instructive.  In productivity terms, what the continent produces by Thursday each week it takes UK plc until Friday to make, precisely because of a lack of the requisite skills.  Politicians talk about the increased number of apprenticeships rather than their quality.  Europe has high unemployment but a smaller number of low skilled jobs while Britain has created one and three quarter million new jobs in the past four years but too many of them are of low value.

FE cannot deliver the people to close this skills gap on its own.  Government attempts to persuade industry and business to fill the funding deficit voluntarily have failed.  Whoever is elected in 2015 will have to promote a strategy which involves education, employers and unions and takes everyone along with them.  If there is so much less money to be had for training we will need support from all sectors to make it work.  While this can be partly achieved in places like Milton Keynes where we already have strong collaborative relationships across all sectors of the local economy there has to be government process and structure to make it happen on a national level.  The alternative, of a low wage, low aspiration economy where social mobility and competitiveness are strangled is too bleak a prospect even to contemplate.

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