It’s Boom not Bust for England’s FE Colleges
In the middle of the recent flurry of government announcements on public sector pay it wouldn’t be surprising if most people missed the biggest announcement on Further Education funding for many years. Amazingly, it was good news.
Although colleges are outside the pay review body framework, it was announced that the Department for Education is pumping in nearly half a billion pounds of extra funding over the next two years, £185 million in 2023-4 and £285 million in 2024-5. The aim is to give colleges enough money to match the 6.5% pay award offered to school teachers.
It’s now clear that after months of the Association of Colleges and others pressing the case, Gillian Keegan and Robert Halfon have managed to persuade the Treasury to use underspends in other Post-16 budgets to shore up collapsing college finances and take the steam out of the pressure cooker of threatened union strike action which looked set to boil over next year.
Thank you, ministers. At last, you have turned all the rhetoric about the vital role of FE Colleges in tackling Britain’s skills crisis into something real. A proper funding boost for a sector that has been living on starvation rations for years.
Yes, it’s not perfect. After a decade of almost unrelenting funding squeezes, the FE sector could do with twice or even three times the money it’s now getting. But given the tight economic situation, this is remarkably positive, and a significant increase which will have a real impact. Even better, it’s guaranteed until academic year 2024/25 and thus provides much needed stability.
Because the money is being distributed through the 16-19 year old funding formula, the impact will vary considerably. While 16-19 funding typically makes up 90+% of Sixth Form College income, there are many colleges for which it is only 30% or less of annual income, so not all colleges will benefit equally, and a few may miss out almost completely. We won’t know the detail of how exactly the changes will work out for individual colleges for another few weeks, but there will undoubtedly be tears as well as smiles in September, with many colleges still facing a tough financial situation.
Here at the Lifelong Education Institute we’ve been all too aware of the ferocious financial storm many FE Colleges have been facing. The rising demands governments have been making of the FE sector – T Levels, Higher Technical Qualifications, Institutes of Technology, Local Skills Improvement Plans, and many others – have not been matched by rising core funding.
In particular, any serious attempt to make the Lifelong Loan Entitlement work and breathe life back into education and training to upskill and reskill working adults will depend on the energy and drive of FE Colleges which sit at the heart of local skills ecosystems. Tackling the UK’s chronic skills supply problem will require active partnership between FE, HE, local employers and local government. Struggling on with key parts of this partnership debilitated by underfunding, unable to recruit and retain vital specialist staff, simply won’t work. That message has clearly been heard and understood by Gillian Keegan and Robert Halfon. Let’s hope that whoever steps into their shoes after the next general election follows suit and prioritises investment in FE.
But for now, let’s appreciate the moment. It’s not quite boom, but at least FE has been saved from bust.