Today, trade union members from the further education sector will be lobbying MPs over the funding cuts to adult education. For despite the government saying that it values learning, that it is creating thousands of new apprenticeships, and that we need a skilled workforce, in reality it is starving the one sector it needs to deliver these things.
The impact of the cuts is already being felt. Colleagues from the UCU and ATL have told me that college retstructures (the modern day word for downsizing) are taking place with abandon. Indeed, one trade union officer said that while change is nothing new to the FE sector, the sheer numbers of staff now at risk of redundancy are higher than ever seen before.
Of course FE has always been education’s poor relation. Successive governments have paid plenty of lip-service to the importance of learning and skills, but none have followed this up with the levels of funding needed. Consequently the sector has seen years of college mergers and restructures, while many have been forced to operate more like private companies as they compete with each other for students or training contracts with employers.
Sadly, no one, other than those learning or working in the FE sector, seems particularly bothered by all of this. FE is an easy target for austerity. For example, the Education Maintenance Allowance, which helped many students continue to study at an FE college, was abolished with very little protest. Those directly affected – young people – were easily ignored, as in effect, they were already marginalised by the mainstream political parties. What’s more, since FE is a provider of vocational education, and since almost all the current cabinet went to top universities, the cynic in me is drawing the obvious conclusion…
Ultimately it is society that will suffer. Education is a lifelong process, and FE provides an important means for adults and young people to learn and to acquire skills. It provides opportunities for those who are unable to go on to university, it helps those who want to learn a trade or develop a new skill, and it enables those who didn’t do so well at school to recognise their real potential. It also benefits employers and so helps boost productivity. If the cuts continue then this valuable resource risks being lost forever.