Thursday, 30 January 2014

Big State, Little State: The future of FE

by Mark Corney

Both the Coalition parties and Labour are committed to running a budget surplus by the end of the decade.

With expenditure on benefits planned to rise despite welfare cuts, spending on services which are not protected will be squeezed even more.

Festering underneath this 'fiscal consensus', however, is the hotly contested question over the size of the state and whether England at least should have a big or little state.

On the face of it, the future for 16-18 and adult further education looks bleak under both visions.

Public funding for 3-15 education is likely to be protected during the remainder of the decade.

Spending on higher education can be expected to be maintained, so long as many of the last remaining grant funded budgets are turned into income contingent loans.

And it is a fair assumption that spending on adult apprenticeships will increase if employers are prepared to make a compulsory cash contribution towards the cost.

The cut in the funding rate for 18 year olds, and potential for extra cuts to adult FE to save HE budgets from the axe, shows how vulnerable 16-18 and adult further education is even today.

The conclusion is being drawn that 16-18 education and adult further education face an incredibly tough time after the next general election whatever the size of the 'state' in England.

The truth is that the FE sector is too pessimistic about young people and probably not pessimistic enough about adults.

Some in the FE sector have criticised the decision by DfE to fully fund full-time 16 and 17 year olds who are obliged to stay in education and training under the RPA, but to reduce the funding rate to 82.5% for 18 year olds who do not have to participate under the RPA.

But in many respects FE should take some long-term comfort from this decision. Each of the main political parties is going into the next general election signed up to the RPA. This will protect funding for 16 and 17 year olds to some degree. The challenge for FE is to gain a commitment from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats to protect in real terms education spending on 16-17 year olds in line with 3-15 education.

On the other hand, FE might not be pessimistic enough about adult further education. 

Adult further education just has no political friends.

The 'earn or learn' agenda is causing policy makers to consider targeting the adult FE budget not even on 18-24 year olds but on 18-21 year olds.

25+ adult FE not supported by income contingent loans looks set to be cut to reduce the deficit, or redirected to help the forgotten generation of young adults.

All in all, the future for 16-17 and 18-21 FE will be challenging but not apocalyptic. And for colleges in particular there remain opportunities to expand full-time 14-15 enrolments, delivering more competitive full time and part time HE and offering adult apprenticeships. 

But it appears that 25+ adult further education is an area where politicians are increasingly deciding on fiscal or philosophical grounds that the state should vacate.

Mark Corney is a policy consultant and adviser to CfL.

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