Further education: happy-ever-after for the Cinderella sector?

“It has, I believe, been an old complaint among many concerned with the technical side of education that that part of education has been the Cinderella. Well, the Government is determined that even if there was any truth in that in the past, there shall be none in the future.”

That forthright pledge came, not from a politician in our own times, but from the president of the board of education in 1935. Almost a century later, further education (FE) is still struggling to break away from its position as an overlooked and under-resourced Cinderella sector.

The importance of FE

FE matters in many ways to many people. Through FE, individuals can get a second chance to obtain qualifications, equip themselves for higher education, and improve their employability or chances of promotion, as well as enjoying countless health and wellbeing benefits.  Employers look to FE  to provide a workforce with the skills they need. So many of the services we rely on today depend on people who learned their skills in FE colleges, from car mechanics to care workers, hairdressers to housing managers. Not incidentally, the wider economy benefits from the improved productivity, increased tax-take and knowledge transfer that FE delivers. In spite of all these benefits, FE colleges attract less attention and funding than schools or universities, and their impact is not so widely recognised.

The Cinderella factors

In 2018, researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education identified six key issues affecting FE policy in England:

  • English FE is not defined clearly and stably;
  • the strength and continuity of FE colleges have been undermined by multiple and changing funding sources and funders, frequent government reviews and frequent substantial policy changes;
  • increasing numbers of college lecturers are employed on zero hours contracts;
  • mergers and closures have undermined colleges’ community and employment functions;
  • competition among the multiplicity of private bodies awarding FE qualifications is leading them to make their qualifications easier to attain;
  • cuts in FE funding have greatly weakened colleges, leaving them under-resourced.

The hardest-hit service

As the Ontario study noted, funding is a key factor in the precarious position of FE in the UK, something echoed by further research. An independent review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, reported that in 2018 English universities received £8bn in government funding to support 1.2m undergraduates, while just £2.3bn was allocated for the 2.2m full and part-time students aged over 18 in further education.

A further report, published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies  found that over the last decade further education and skills spending for young people and adults received the largest cuts across all areas of education spending.

The House of Commons Education Committee has also identified FE as the hardest hit part of the education sector:

“Participation in full time further education has more than doubled since the 1980s, yet post-16 budgets have seen the most significant pressures of all education stages. Per student funding fell by 16% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2018–19 – twice as much as the 8% school funding fall over a similar period.”

Witnesses contributing to the Committee’s investigation were in no doubt that FE has been hit harder than other parts of the education sector because it doesn’t have the ear of politicians in the way that schools and universities do. As one contributor put it:

“…there are more votes in schools than colleges.”

Remedies and recommendations

The Augar review observed that there is a powerful case for change in the FE sector, and made a number of recommendations to improve the quality, capability and capacity of England’s FE college network, including:

  • a national network of colleges should be established, with a dedicated capital investment, and the integration of small, local colleges into groups;
  • full funding should be provided for all students participating in study for levels 2 and 3 to remove barriers to social mobility and productivity;
  • the reduction in the core funding rate for 18 year-olds should be reversed;
  • Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) funding rules should be simplified, and government should commit to providing an indicative adult education budget;
  • the government should invest in the FE workforce as a priority;
  • FE colleges should have a protected title, as universities are entitled to.

The Augar recommendation that £3bn should flow to colleges, along with a one-off £1bn capital funding boost for the national network underlines the need for government to take further education seriously. As things stand, FE is still awaiting a definitive government response.

FE in the rest of the UK

Scotland
In Scotland, where FE colleges provide around 71 million hours of learning to over 242,00 students each year, financial pressures are increasing. A 2019 Audit Scotland report noted that Scottish colleges are operating within an increasingly tight financial environment. It reported that 12 colleges were forecasting recurring financial deficits by 2022-23. The report suggested that there is scope for the Scottish Funding Council to work with individual colleges and their boards to improve financial planning and to achieve greater transparency in the sector’s financial position. More recently, research by the principals of Scotland’s two largest colleges reported that FE boosts Scotland’s GDP by £3.5bn a year.

Wales
The 2016 Hazelkorn review made recommendations for post-compulsory education in Wales, including a new Tertiary Education Authority to distribute funding to universities and colleges, and to shape the vision of the post-compulsory sector. The review also recommended that education policy and institutions should be more focused on Wales’ social and economic goals. The Welsh Government has accepted the recommendations.

Northern Ireland
Six regional colleges, operating across 40 campuses, are the main providers of technical and vocational education in Northern Ireland. In 2016, the Northern Ireland Executive reviewed FE, resulting in a strategy with nine themes covering areas such as economic development; social inclusion and delivery. It includes a commitment to, in partnership with the colleges, review the funding model to ensure that it supports and incentivises colleges to deliver the strategy. With the resumption of the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, the hope is that the government can work with the FE sector to meet the challenges of funding and the needs of the economy.

Cinderella no more?

Further education is the backbone of the UK’s efforts to meet the country’s growing skills gap, and may hold the key to improving productivity and social mobility. But OECD figures show just 37% of men and 34% of women participate in further education (compared to averages of 49% and 44% respectively across other industrialised countries). Clearly, more needs to be done to help FE level up.

Earlier this month, in his first Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed the Conservative Party’s election manifesto commitments for FE, including £1.8bn for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to upgrade college buildings. There are also high hopes that more money will be delivered to FE in the autumn spending review.

The FE sector has welcomed the change in approach. Following the Budget speech, the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said: “Today showed a clear shift in attitude towards technical and vocational education, after a decade of neglect.”

It might still be too soon to forecast a happy ending for the Cinderella sector, but the signs are that FE is coming in from the cold.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog

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