13th - 17th May is a Week of Action in the 'Love Our Colleges' campaign. It has a straightforward rationale. The government should substantially increase funding for Further Education and vocational training to tackle unfairness. It must end the financial neglect of England's further education system. It should use the forthcoming spending review to increase 16 to 18 funding.
Those last three sentences are, I confess, pure plagiarism. They come from, respectively, the Social Mobility Commission, The Confederation of British Industry, and the Ofsted Chief Inspector. I could also have lifted identical comments from the recent Westminster Hall debate, where, remarkably in these factional times, MPs from all parties, on both sides of the Brexit divide, and from across the whole country (including, I am delighted to say, good numbers from across the South West) spoke as one about the desperate need to reinvest in our further education system. Colleges were rightly described in that debate as 'the national engines of skills, aspiration and social mobility'. The same words and sentiments are now coming from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and from Chambers of Commerce and Local Enterprise Partnerships across the country.
We are nearing a consensus, therefore, that we have to end the UK's chronic, long-term disinvestment in its colleges. Whether looking at the college funding crisis from social or economic perspectives, informed authorities concur and MPs from all sides make the same impassioned plea.
The need for radical change in this area of government policy is linked to every item on a rather depressing list: low productivity, sluggish economic growth, a weak manufacturing sector, stalled social mobility, mental health concerns about young people, the impact of job and accommodation insecurity, worsening skills shortages and gaps, the halving of adult participation in education, and the fact that, as a result of present policies, almost one in three graduates are classified as overqualified for their jobs.
There are other factors now in play. One is a clearer understanding of what social mobility is, and is not, and what really delivers it. Very few, for example, now believe that tackling the challenges listed above has anything to do with putting more children in grammar school blazers. Equally, the rather top-down idea that social mobility simply means securing a traditional degree from one of a dozen or so universities is less and less credible.
Another factor is a growing appreciation of what is called, a little clumsily perhaps, 'intergenerational fairness'. Last month, a cross-party parliamentary select committee on this issue concluded that "The Government should substantially increase funding for Further Education and vocational qualifications" and "rebalance the value" attributed to universities and FE Colleges. Views are changing outside Westminster too, and demonstrably in the South West. Perhaps, for example, you too are part of the trend where older generations now realise, uncomfortably, that they were much better invested in and supported than the generations now in their charge. Beyond the moral arguments against that kind of failure, there are robust practical ones, based on enlightened self-interest, as technicians, engineers and many skilled trades all impact adversely on them and their families.
The skills we lack have to be taught. They are taught in colleges. Colleges cannot afford to recruit or retain the people to teach the skills. The number of colleges has declined dramatically. Attempts to stabilise a woefully underfunded further education sector by shrinking colleges, shutting courses, selling off estate, forcing through mergers, have not worked. Nevertheless, another round of cost-cutting local FE reviews is underway. In rural areas, and the South West particularly, reducing further education provision can present insurmountable obstacles to learners in terms of the availability, and cost, of public transport.
Citing T Levels as the just-around-the-corner panacea for further education in crisis, a stock political response, does not stand up to even brief scrutiny. For example, Truro and Penwith College is at the forefront of delivering every one of the first wave of these new T Levels and working hard to make them a great success. However, the "extra" T Level funding is to pay for "extra" delivery hours on T Levels, something which simply brings our technical education closer, in terms of contact to, to our economic competitors. Moreover, even for a college like ours which enthusiastically leads the way in technical education, there will only be some 45 T Level learners in the first year of delivery, 2020. This is out of our total 16-19 student population of over 5,000 for whom the already very low levels of funding continue to decline.
What diverse national agencies and MPs of all parties understand now that real action is needed, urgently, to reinvest in colleges. This is investment which previous far-sighted generations made for our collective benefit. Those life chances this investment enhances are not just for 'others' or 'the young'. They are the life chances of families and whole communities and their future prospects in terms of well-being and quality of life. Colleges Week is not just about colleges therefore. It is about you and yours. I hope everyone across the South West will give it the support it deserves.