What Am I Going to Do Next?
Part 4: Colleges of Further Education.
What are FE colleges?
This month I am going to look more closely at the infrastructure for vocational education and training in England and Wales to see how fit it is to tackle youth unemployment. I will then consider how local Labour parties and trades unions can work to improve their fitness for purpose, so that the ‘levelling up’ agenda becomes a property of national and local labour movements, arguing that this is an opportunity to engage with some of the main concerns of the electorate in ensuring good, secure jobs in their localities.
The key institutions are the Colleges of Further Education (FE Colleges for short). There are 259 including sixth form colleges in England and Wales. In England they cater for 2.2 million students, of whom over a million are between 16 and 24 years old. This contrasts with around 1.5 million of the same age group at university. FE Colleges teach everything from the most basic preparation for work courses and remedial literacy and numeracy, through technical courses at various levels to supporting apprenticeships to advanced technical qualifications and degrees. They also, like schools, teach A levels. The really are in some ways ‘jacks of all trades’ but absolutely critical to the provision of work-related know-how in England and Wales. Any prospect of success in providing know-how for skilled and semi-skilled jobs depends on the health of the FE colleges.
Despite the numbers of young people they cater for, their total income was around £7 billion a year in 2017/18. In England, all institutions of higher education had a total income of £34.5 billion in 2018/19. Approximately £500 million of FE college income is for higher education. This means that universities get around £34 billion per year in income, nearly 5 times that of FE Colleges for similar student numbers. Furthermore, the Tory led austerity years from 2010 led to a total loss of income of around £1 billion up to 2019, representing a cumulative cut in income of around 12% for FE colleges according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The Labour Party puts the loss to 16-19 year old education at 21% in real terms since 2010. These numbers tell their own story, of both historic and recent neglect of a sector of vital importance to communities and the economy. Universities have the political clout and social prestige both to escape serious cuts and to command the attention of the government largely, at the expense of the FE colleges. In any attempt to deal in the medium and long term with youth unemployment, these colleges will be a vital resource. At least the White Paper that I wrote about last month recognises that. Whether the Tories have a coherent plan and adequate funding for the sector is another matter.
A Bit of History.
Until 1993 FE colleges were run by their local authorities. They are now independent charities run by governing bodies with an overwhelmingly business interest. They are responsible for their own finances and are expected to be commercially viable. In practice this has meant that they are often obliged to compete with each other, particularly colleges in close geographical proximity. Money from the state has tended to be awarded on an annual basis, although the White Paper proposes 3 year financial settlements to allow for more long-term planning. Extreme financial pressures that made themselves felt from 2010 onwards have led to numerous mergers, loosening the local affiliation of many colleges.
It is vital to understand that unlike the majority of universities, Colleges of FE are locally rooted. They respond to local economic needs and their students and clients are overwhelmingly local. Unfortunately, the 1993 changes in governance encouraged rivalry and competition between colleges rather than the co-ordination that had previously existed, together with an increasing duplication of provision, leading to inefficiencies on the one hand and huge gaps in necessary provision on the other. Without a drastic change in governance, it will be difficult to change the destructive competition between colleges significantly. To make matters worse private training providers (PTPs) were encouraged to financially undercut the colleges. PTPs are extremely variable in quality and it is only now, in the White Paper, that they will be subject to more rigorous scrutiny. The proliferation of providers has made it more difficult for employers and potential students to discriminate between what is good and what is not so good, causing further problems in providing quality vocational education. The last 28 years of market-led reforms and financial constraint have led to the sector now being in a critical state.
The immediate financial slide into the abyss has been halted, although the sector remains vastly underfunded when compared with universities. However, much will need to be done if the Colleges are to provide some of the means of regeneration of their localities. They won’t be able to do it on their own either. The fact that the colleges undertake a huge range of necessary activities makes it difficult to locate particular specialisms near enough to those who wish to access them. On the one hand FE Colleges are bound to cover a huge range of occupations and levels of study. On the other hand, they are expected to serve local communities. These two requirements are in tension with one another and this can only be resolved by a government prepared to put further resources into the system, but in such a way that these two aims can be met as closely as possible.
This is not easy. It is theoretically easier in large, metropolitan areas where populations are concentrated and transport links are good, where different specialisms and levels of study can be located within reasonable access of all those in the metropolitan area. Even here, inadequate funding of public transport or insufficient subsidy to the transport needs of young people can make this a challenge, as is the case, for example in London, where bus journeys off principal transport axes can take a very long time. It is much more problematic in non-metropolitan areas and even more so in rural ones. There are inevitably going to be compromises and there are real choices. You either build more colleges in those areas which currently lack them or you improve access to the colleges that exist. There is a third option, which is much less suitable for 16 than it is for 18 year olds, which is to give some colleges a limited amount of residential accommodation.
If the government is serious about providing all young people with a reasonable range of opportunities, not just those who wish to attend a university, then it is going to have to plan for coverage which includes everyone who wishes to engage in vocational education or further study. Essentially this means targeting a minimum journey time on public or publicly funded transport for attendance at a course of choice. This can be done in either of the two ways suggested or through some compromise between the two. If the government is serious about reviving the economies of local communities it will not do either to concentrate investment in those metropolitan areas that are the population and economic centres of their regions, like Sunderland-Newcastle in the North East or Bristol in the South West. Too much emphasis on economies of scale will disadvantage the very areas most in need of investment. But even a cursory look at current FE provision suggests that there is already too much concentration and far too few facilities in non-metropolitan areas.
To summarise. If colleges are to serve local communities and economies they must be located in reasonable proximity. Where student numbers cannot justify a particular specialism, that specialism should be located within a minimum target time by publicly funded transport, which need not be a bus, but could be a minibus or communal taxi, organised by the college but ultimately centrally funded as a part of the college budget allocation. Furthermore, a good mix of courses should be available to all young people within an area within a reasonable transport time, using free and publicly funded transport. I should add here that the same principle needs to be applied to apprenticeships. Although apprentices are employees, an apprenticeship wage will not be sufficient to sustain substantial transport costs. There are other costs that will have to be covered if those who are not going to university get a fair deal. This includes investment in up to date equipment, and properly paid and trained teachers, who also have good opportunities for industrial secondment to keep up to date with their specialism.
Governance of colleges needs to be radically reformed so that all stakeholders are properly able to ensure that no single interest group determines how they are run. Local Authorities need much-enhanced representation and trade unions should also have a place alongside local businesses, as well as the staff and students of the college. The main mission of colleges should be to support their local economies and communities within a local and regional plan. They should have the responsibility to ensure that they are financially viable, but they should not be allowed to compete in terms of provision offered or in charging for publicly funded courses. Without co-ordination between colleges, it will be impossible to construct coherent regional plans that are going to work. The prime responsibilities of governing bodies should be to support local economies and communities within budget, and to co-ordinate with other providers, central government and employers to ensure the best possible provision for their region
Where does the Labour Movement fit in?
There is substantial work here for local labour parties, local councils and trade unions, working with local colleges, universities, young peoples and employment charities, to do an audit of local needs and to draw up plans along the lines suggested. These should then be incorporated into the campaigning of local parties and trade unions, showing local people that their needs have been given careful thought and that there is something here that a Labour government could implement. So far, the Tories’ attempt to level up has been lacking in detail and where it is evident, as in the White Paper that I discussed last month, it is inadequate.
Part 3 of this series can be read here