Funding challenges require a rethink

Colleges in Wales have a long track record of delivering for Wales.  In many respects colleges in Wales lead the UK in the consistency of their inspection ratings on quality and in success rates for learners in their qualifications. Government officials from other parts of the UK have visited Wales to find out the secret of our success.

Yet this success is overshadowed by plans to sharply reduce investment in FE over the next few years.

Colleges appreciate the Welsh Government’s own challenges in dealing with cuts to its budget by the UK Government.  They realise that they will have to work ever more efficiently at a time of reduced public spending.  Yet the paradox not lost on many is that the part of Wales’s education sector which is seen as UK-leading is the part that is facing the deepest cuts.

It raises wider questions about how a commitment to delivery and performance is recognised.  Surplus places in schools show little sign of dropping and performance measures for school sixth forms makes comparing learner results with other post-16 providers very difficult.

The scale of the cuts proposed for post-16 education in the recent Draft Assembly Budget also raises serious questions about the fortress-like ring fenced funding in place around spending on pre-16 education, health and support for full-time higher education (HE) courses.  These areas cover the majority of public spending in Wales.  Keeping these ring fences in place for more than another year may mean that swathes of post-16 education provision will be left to the vagaries of the market. Colleges are acting to increase the level of their commercial work to offset public investment cuts, but increased income from this important work will not cover the level of cuts expected.

This may be the first economic recovery that is accompanied by a reduction in investment in skills in the UK for those of working age at level 3 and below.  With major projects such as the Energy Island, the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, the Circuit for Wales and the electrification of the Great Western railway pending or underway, the upskilling our workforce is a matter of urgency.  The CBI and other employer bodies have warned that skills shortages will frustrate Wales’ ability to benefit from the recovery.  This will particularly affect those who have not had been advantaged by their family background or their schooling.

ColegauCymru has recently given evidence to the Diamond Review on HE funding and student support where we suggested alternative ways to provide high quality HE without the level of public cost associated with the traditional three-year residential degree.  We need to move quickly if we are to ensure that high costs in this one area of education squeezes out whole areas of provision elsewhere.

If adult learners can’t access funded level 3 courses, which are the most usual requirements to get in to HE, they won’t be able to get in to HE in the first place.  This would affect our success on the crucial widening access agenda.  We need some ‘whole system’ thinking to avoid unintended consequences.

If we are serious about reducing education inequalities then allowing individuals over the age of 18 the opportunity to improve their skills or to retrain into a new career is essential.  The potential phasing out of funding for part-time students in FE will likely have serious consequences for those who are disadvantaged.  These learners are less likely to have the right level of qualifications to progress to a well-paid job or into higher education.

No one wants to be where we are.  But without a keen eye on how the cuts may fall across the whole range of public services we may look back in two or three years time to find that we have lost more than we had ever foreseen.  With another five years of public investment constraint almost certain, this is a debate that needs to commence sooner rather than later.

A version of this blogpost appeared in the Western Mail on 16 October 2014

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