Policy View: Here we go again or has something changed? The outlook for further education in England

By Martin Doel

Campaign for Learning first asked me to write this blog more than two months ago. Since then, with all that has been going on with the cost-of-living emergency, another change of Prime Minister and a series of economic shocks, I have changed my answer to the question ‘here we go again or has something changed?’ time and again. 

The question that I have been asking myself is whether the focus in Government on skills training and education outside of universities and schools will be enduring, or whether it will prove to have been a passing fad?  

Austerity 2.0 

The question would have always been important, but it matters even more if, as some have surmised, we are facing Austerity 2.0 with a new round of public funding cuts being in prospect.  


Reasons to be fearful 

For many in further education the fear must be that it’s a case of ‘here we go again’, with the sector taking a disproportionate share of funding cuts, and the entrenched interests of schools and universities taking priority. 

This was certainly the case in 2010, when colleges and other further education providers bore an undue share of savings in the original austerity programme. Although not directly targeted in cuts, they were the majority providers of 16-18 and adult non-university education, where cuts to the Department for Education budget were applied disproportionately, a fact subsequently confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others.  

Lack of prominence and shallow understanding in the minds of ministers and policymakers were key factors in further education being at the front of the queue when cuts were applied in 2010.  

But so too was the fact that many constituencies that the sector serves so well - disadvantaged students, local communities and small employers - lacked influence at the national level.   

Together, these factors meant that cuts could be made in further education with apparent impunity. 

I say apparent impunity, because by 2015 the full impact of the cuts was becoming clear, not only in colleges and providers, but also amongst those that they served in the form of left-behind communities and no improvement in productivity in the economy.   

Reasons to be hopeful 

With the benefit of hindsight, the 2015 spending settlement seems to me (as I hoped at the time) to have represented a ‘floor’ in cuts within further education.   

At this point, Government recognised, at least tacitly, that the sector had borne too much of the austerity burden.   

Whilst unwelcome in some quarters, the Area Review process and its associated funding for restructuring was an acknowledgement of this realisation.   

So too, to some extent, were the Apprenticeship Levy and the Insolvency Regime (with its student guarantee). 

Recovery from such deep cuts was, however, always likely to have been a long-run process, but with a stronger representative voice in AoC, AELP, HOLEX and increased interest in think tanks to build upon the persisting efforts of others like Campaign for Learning, my hopes of a renaissance in the sector’s fortunes had risen over the past five years. This, despite a persistent tendency in policymakers to fiddle with the superstructure of qualifications and structures, and to attach yet more obstructive bureaucracy to each new funding initiative.  

Cash terms protection 

So, to the question that I have been grappling with – will further education again be the focus of cuts?   

My conclusion (this week) is that whilst there will be cuts in education more generally (most likely not in cash, but in inflation-related terms), further education will not be a prime target this time around.  My reasoning is located part in rhetoric and part in reality. 

First, rhetoric – whilst there will always some distance between political rhetoric and funding reality, the Government’s (and the Opposition’s) rhetoric around the centrality of skills in productivity and growth is now so deeply embedded that it will be politically much more difficult to target further education in 2022 than it was in 2010.   

Second, reality – the cuts already applied to further education mean that, in the words of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, there is no remaining ‘fat to be excised’ in further education.   

Moreover, as David Hughes, my successor at the AoC has pointed out so clearly, further education, in all its forms, self-evidently provides the answers to many of the challenges that the nation will face in the decade ahead.       

One of them is that investment in skills is central to boosting the long-term trend rate of economic growth to 2.5% and should, therefore, be pivotal to the Growth Plan.                  

Martin Doel is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Education