By Gordon Marsden MP:
The impending spending review finds further education in the centre of a perfect funding storm. Ringfenced funding for school education and apprenticeships growing (in quantity if not quality), leaving an ever-greater burden of cuts on FE. I have described as hasty and half-baked area reviews of local FE provision, in which colleges and sixth forms are invited to ‘volunteer’ their views on how to find efficiencies, with a dark threat of funding implications for those that do not comply. And a secretary of state for business prepared to sacrifice 40 per cent of his department crucial to skills, life chances and productivity on the altar of his leadership ambitions.
As my colleague the shadow secretary of state for education Lucy Powell has said, it is time to be blunt about what is happening to FE. Sector leaders have gone on record to say they are on a ‘precipice’ yet there is no cessation in government cuts. We must act now if we are to save a service that is a lifeline to so many.
This week, new analysis by our shadow education team of House of Commons Library research showed just what Tory cuts could mean for FE for 16-19-year-olds. Assuming that the DfE met the lower government target of 25 per cent cuts, spending on 16-19 FE could fall by £1.6bn per year by 2020. Expressed in terms of the budgets allocated to institutions, this would be the withdrawal of the funding that powers 56 sixth forms and 80 FE colleges – 40 per cent of all FE institutions.
As I told the BIS and DfE Minister Nick Boles this week in the Commons, FE must no longer be the government’s whipping boy when the spending review is delivered. 16-19 FE was the most cut area of all education in the last parliament, falling by 14 per cent in real terms. Per-student funding has faced a real-terms cut again this year, plus a £100m cut in funding allocations to FE providers. Hundreds took to the streets last week to protest against attacks on the sector and tens of thousands signed an online petition for adult skills. The government’s appointed expert Alison Wolf warned that the UK’s skilled workers ‘may vanish’ at this rate of cuts. And the National Audit Office this summer reported that half of colleges were operating in deficit.
And the dimensions of attack on FE continue to multiply. The government has wrenched money from Esol teaching for migrant jobseekers, at untold future cost to the taxpayer and community cohesion. In his leadership campaign Jeremy Corbyn put a welcome emphasis on lifelong learning, but the government’s approach has been to slash adult skills by 24 per cent this year. And the government’s new HE green paper threatens to stack the deck against FE colleges that receive precious revenue from providing degree-level skills.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell and I both spoke at this week’s FE rally of the immeasurable value of further education. What better example is there of social mobility than this support for people of all ages to reskill and increase their capabilities? This is a government which claims they want to boost technical skills and jobs but who are strangling colleges and FE providers that deliver them, whether via their FE or higher level/higher education courses. A government which is shooting its own economic goals in the foot and in the process denying hundreds of thousands of young people, and many women and men between their 20s and 50s, of their life chances. That is why we must put FE at the heart of our attack on this incompetent, callous government.