Secret Lecturer: Another year of change
Let’s take a positive slant – has 2017-18 been a good or not so good year for the FE sector?
It’s certainly been a mixed but constantly busy bag of progress, delays and setbacks, set against that familiar background of funding uncertainties, Brexit indecision, and colleges’ single-minded focus on successfully doing what’s best for their students.
Leafing through the AoC’s news update last week in relaxed holiday mode, I couldn’t help thinking it reflected the type of events, changes and crises that took place throughout the year – in a nutshell, student hardship, struggling colleges, emergency hand-outs set against a wealth of new initiatives, the huge added value colleges add to people’s lives – parents inspired by courses to help children with homework – and new, targeted funding to boost skills where they are needed most.
Food banks a fact of campus life
Funding in my college has been tight all year; food banks on UK campuses are now a fact of life. Some hard-up students, particularly those over 18 who get less state support than 16-18s, face a stark choice: do they pay for food or transport to college?
For colleges struggling with finances, the government brought in insolvency regulations in February, a salient reminder of austerity funding and very often the misunderstanding by policy makers about what FE actually does and needs to function best. The government spent more than £57m funding on college bail-outs this year.
Apprenticeships quickly slipped through their honeymoon period after the apprenticeship levy’s introduction in May 2017, with the number of apprenticeship starts from last September onwards noticeably less than at the same time the previous year. Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable has helped lead calls for reforms in the use of levy funds. Some employers, particularly small to medium size businesses, have been getting initial cold feet about taking on apprentices, partly because of the 20% time off-the-job for training rule.
Management degree apprenticeships mushroom
At the most advanced end of the scale, degree apprenticeships, particularly in management, have been unexpectedly popular, prompting fears that some companies are putting all their levy funds into advanced degree level 5 and 6 apprentices as they get a quicker return for less investment compared with less experienced level 2-4 candidates.
The controversial Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers had a difficult birth – the first list for registrations had to be briefly reopened last autumn because of so many complaints from recognised providers who apparently did not meet the criteria and missed the cut. Meanwhile, the Institute for Apprenticeships, tasked with implementation of the new apprenticeship standards, is under fire for delays in carrying out the process.
Funding is a constant problem for colleges, determining their teaching staff. Pressure by FE teachers to seek parity with schoolteacher pay levels has continued plus more calls for qualified FE teacher status. Meanwhile, more colleges have been permitted to charge maximum tuition fees for HE courses they offer.
New initiatives – good and not so good
Several new major initiatives have continued to have a bumpy ride this year, reflected in the closure of many university technical colleges that take pupils from 14, along with a good number of studio schools (14-19s). Compulsory resits by all students up to 18 of English and maths GCSEs will be continued into the next academic year. They will be accompanied by additional government funding to improve pass levels, despite strong evidence this past year that pass rates will remain low. A plus is the government’s invitation to learning providers for bids for funding to run around 20 post-16 Centres of Excellence in Maths to promote better maths teaching
The new technical levels (an alternative to A-levels) are slowly grinding their way to launch in September 2020, with the Institute for Apprenticeships given responsibility for their implementation.
Another highpoint for colleges is government legislation that now obliges schools to allow colleges to address school pupils about the benefits of further education. This bypasses some schools’ reluctance to see pupils opting for a vocational route when they might otherwise take a university place and thus gives them a much better picture of all their career options.
As you can see, it’s has been a busy year. Look out for the second half of my survey late this month.