The last few years have been something of a rollercoaster ride for FE, with austerity taking its toll on many colleges across the country. But just before the festive break, the sector got what appeared to be an early Christmas present in the form of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA)settlement letter.
The settlement itself - which came from Skills Minister Nick Boles - put paid to many of FE’s greatest fears over future funding. And while it’s far from a utopia of endless cash, in my view it offers the sector some real opportunities with a stated growth of 36.5 per cent in the real term spending power of the FE sector by 2019-2020. Those opportunities do, however, come with a caveat. What was made clear is that instead of colleges just being given cash, as has happened in the past, there is to be a greater focus on colleges earning it. It was a settlement which, above all, gives opportunity, but without any guarantees.
The letter seems to offer up a compelling proposition for FE colleges across the country – namely, that if we want the cash, we can get it, but that it won’t just be doled out. One key strand is that funding decisions will be placed in the hands of those who will benefit from the services received. Under the settlement that will mean businesses will get to choose where their apprentices are trained, and individuals will decide the provider they feel can offer them the best course. It means that colleges will now have to work harder to sell their courses, bringing a more commercial edge to the provision of further education. The end result will be that colleges which aren’t providing the right type of training will ultimately struggle as they’re started of cash, while those which work to deliver high-quality, community relevant training will reap the benefit of greater funding.
|The funding settlement was full of opportunity, but no guarantee|
In the letter, Nick Boles described it as a “funding settlement to enable profound change to our system of further education” stating that it would put “more power in the hands of service users, instead of service providers.” It means that there will be a need for colleges to build partnerships – if they don’t already have them – with local businesses, strengthening their ties to the local economy so that they can adapt and respond to a changing skills landscape. The colleges which will thrive in this new funding regime are those which are adaptable and can appeal to their service users. It’s certainly won’t be easy for colleges being asked to react to this ‘profound change’ to FE, and for many it may prove near enough impossible. But that demand for change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. History is littered with examples of some of the finest innovation in a variety of sectors during the toughest times, with the strongest organisations managing to forge a path even during lean periods. The FE sector may, as a result of this settlement, see some colleges begin to take the opportunity to really innovate in what they deliver to ensure they provide those local service users with what they want and need. We are always seeing providers react to changes and taking advantage of new opportunities which have opened up, with many thriving.
So as we march into 2016, it’s time to see FE start making these changes, embracing the new systems in place, innovating and ultimately remaining a driving force for our local communities and the engine room of their economies.