Gordon McAlpine: College investment more vital than ever

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THOUSANDS of learners and employers across the region who have benefited from excellent training provided by local Further Education colleges may be surprised to learn that the FE sector is in a state of “financial crisis”.

Given the dominance of Brexit, it comes as no surprise that the vitally important role played by colleges has been sadly neglected by politicians, but the financial ill-heath of the FE sector has now reached breaking point.

This was confirmed in a recent Parliamentary debate, prompted by a student-led petition attracting 70,000 signatures. MPs who attended agreed unanimously that the Government must raise the base rate of learner funding in colleges which has been frozen for the past 10 years, resulting in a cut in real terms of 30 per cent over that period.

In addition, Adult and Community Education has almost disappeared, depriving local communities of much needed opportunities to access high quality education and training courses.

At long last some Westminster MPs have reacted to this dire situation and a cross-party group (165 MPs) have signed a letter to the Chancellor calling for an increase to the funding for colleges in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

Their letter points out that the 
role of colleges who educate and train 2.2 million people every year across England “is vital in improving the country’s productivity and reducing the nation’s skills gap”.

The letter went on to add that in a recent survey six in 10 SMEs say that finding employees with the right skills is their biggest concern – with 58 per cent believing that the UK will get left behind if the Government doesn’t address the issue. These businesses say that colleges are best placed to skill the future workforce they need.

This view is endorsed not just by the colleges themselves and their lead bodies such as the Association of Colleges, but by the recent OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) report on adult learning, and the TUC, in its immediate response to the report’s findings. All organisations are in complete agreement on the chronic lack of investment in workplace training and skills across the UK.

This is at a time when the world of work is changing rapidly and the need for upskilling and re-training of our workforce has never been greater. 
The problem has been made even more acute by the loss to our economy of skilled Eastern European workers, disillusioned by the Brexit process and the resulting “hostile environment” towards EU citizens living in and contributing to our local communities and regional economy.

We could therefore end up post-Brexit with a low skilled, low price, low pay and low productivity economy. If we are to avoid this catastrophic outcome, we need to reverse the current short-term policies which have resulted in:

Cuts to teaching and vital learning support hours for young people.

A drastic reduction in the number of courses for adults.

The value of staff pay falling by over 25 per cent since 2009.

A £7,000 pay differential between college teachers and school teachers.

The Labour Party is pushing for an immediate national review, not just of the funding shortage, but on how to further develop the future role of FE colleges in meeting the needs of local learners and employers. This approach is deserving of attention from all MPs.

There are also additional funding pressures on FE colleges in rural areas where students need access to significant financial support with travel to college and to high quality work placements. This needs addressing as a matter of urgency to prevent further discrimination against learners in rural areas.

If regional FE colleges are to continue to respond to increasing demand from learners and employers, it is imperative that adequate long-term funds are made available. The alternative is to see further cuts to courses and associated staffing reductions in order to balance the
books.

As someone who has been involved in FE for over 45 years as a student, teacher, manager and more recently a governor, I am deeply proud of the role colleges have played in our daily lives.

We must not let our colleges continue to struggle financially through political neglect and lack of sustainable funding in the future. Our students and local communities deserve better.

Gordon McAlpine is a member of the East Yorkshire Constituency Labour Party.