COLLEGE staff are being joined by their students and bosses in an unprecedented demand for extra funding at the heart of government in Westminster.
They will be travelling from colleges across Yorkshire down to London on today to make the case for better funding for colleges direct to MPs – and just weeks after headteachers marched on Downing Street to voice similar concerns.
As the country attempts to grapple with Brexit and skills shortages, the further education sector should be at the centre of our planning for the future.
Why? Because, while colleges help hundreds of thousands of people to improve their lives, they are also uniquely placed to provide large scale benefits to both society and our economy.
They are adept at providing high quality education across a huge range from those looking to acquire a new skill in an informal setting right up to high level degree courses. Colleges specialise in helping those who are often hardest to reach for our traditional schools and universities. They are remarkable places which transform lives and, if given the chance, could help transform our country too.
Yet the past decade has seen a 45 per cent cut in the adult education budget and overall college budgets slashed by 30 per cent. Colleges who teach 16 to 18-year-olds do so with 15 per cent less funding than they had eight years ago.
This makes a real difference in key areas. For example, there has been a drop in enrolments in engineering from 150,000 per year to 50,000 per year and in health and social care from around 680,000 to 220,000. Both are sectors facing skills shortages. Over a million adult learners have been lost to education as a result of cuts and staff have had a raw deal.
Since 2009, pay for further education teachers has dropped by 25 per cent in real terms, and the pay gap between teachers in colleges and schools now stands at £7,000. In that same period the number of teachers in colleges has dropped by a third as we have lost almost 24,000 staff.
Low pay lies at the heart of issues with recruitment and retention to key subject areas. Around two-thirds of college heads say pay is a major obstacle for them when it comes to attracting staff. But it is no wonder staff are walking away from careers in colleges and that they are struggling to recruit.
Those moving out of the sector aren’t doing so because they want to, but because low pay is affecting serious life choices like whether to try to save for a house or how many children to have.
The truth is that while the further education sector has faced and dealt with many crises over the years, what we are facing now means that further education is fighting for its life.
Politicians are never short of warm words when it comes to colleges, but there is little action to back up the rhetoric. In his speech to the Conservative conference at the start of the month, Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, promised £38m in new funding for schools and colleges, but even this tiny amount will be focused on buildings and infrastructure, not on our most urgent need which is to deal with the issue of teacher pay.
There is no doubt that students in want staff to be prioritised. It is the fantastic teaching that brings students to colleges long after the paint has started to peel on new facilities.
The University and College Union has been campaigning against the cuts for a long time. We are the first to recognise that budgets are very tight. However, what disappoints us is that many colleges choose not to prioritise investment in their staff even within the resources they have.
So while we are ready to stand alongside the rest of the sector in calling for extra investment in the sector, we are also clear that colleges themselves must do more to support their greatest asset – the staff.
Matt Waddup is head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union.