‘It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him’ said JRR Tolkien in The Hobbit, and I must say that as I look ahead at the next three years I can see quite a lot of shapes that look like live dragons.
Now is about the time that colleges start to firm up their plans for 2018-19 and their associated one-year and three-year budgets. The challenges are immense. Rising national insurance and pension costs, inflation, falling demographic trends, the problems with forecasting apprenticeship income (levy and non-levy, standards and frameworks) and the difficulties in drawing down sufficient income from adult provision to cover the costs provide real planning challenges. Competition in HE is intense. Many HEIs are making unconditional offers so that the offers made by FE colleges, paradoxically are higher than their local university. And we know that we are not able to pay our staff at the level required to make sure we keep our colleges providing the very best for our students.
Since planning is indispensable but the plans that result are always wrong in the end, we all know that it is important for colleges to make sure that the planning process is robust and tested to destruction.
Most colleges now are taking planning down to course level and doing whatever they can to make sure that courses on offer are planned properly so that they not only cover their costs but also contribute to overheads. It is clearly imperative that we keep these overheads as low as possible – which is where the dragons lie. The increase in the levels of bureaucracy (don’t tell me that the apprenticeship levy and non-levy, the associated procurement and IT system, for example, has made everything streamlined), the increase in the staffing requirements for maths and English (the provision of which now has to be seen as an overhead), the growing crisis of mental ill health amongst our young people (and older students) and the other ‘imperatives’ in our colleges mean that it seems almost impossible not only to reduce overheads but also to make budgets balance.
In my college, we are proud that we still offer minority provision. We protect the likes of A Levels in Music, German and Geology and the courses for young people who are struggling to engage with education at all. We offer the more expensive type of provision (Stonemasonry, for example) because that is what we should be doing. We allow students to take four or even five A Levels and support them to prepare for their Oxbridge examinations, and we design one-to-one bespoke provision for young people who have significant learning difficulties and disabilities. We are not alone – other colleges, I know, see it as a point of principle to keep offering what the students and the local community need to thrive.
We are lucky in York. We have tremendous support from the local Guilds and local employers and charities. This allows us to expand the support we offer our students. Not all colleges are so fortunate. And this is not a sustainable solution to the current funding crisis. Soon we will have to stop working so hard to provide the breadth and depth of curriculum needed by our communities because it will be completely unaffordable. It seems inevitable that crucial courses and qualifications will be the sacrifice to our dragons, unless we can find our own versions of Bard the Bowman (to continue the metaphor).
We know that campaigning is continuing by AoC and other partners regarding the proper funding of our post-16 provision. Just as all resources were deployed to slay the Hobbit’s dragon, so we should muster our governors, students, staff, parents and of course senior teams to add our voices to the AoC campaign. We also know that the demographic upturns are just about to begin, which mean that we shouldn’t be too hasty to sacrifice the minority or expensive provision in our colleges because I suspect we will be reviving this shortly as more students require the breadth of provision we used to offer.
So, what should we do in the interim? Many of us engage in benchmarking the costs of our services against other providers. Perhaps we could go further and work together to share strategies and ways of planning or even ways of reducing costs. We have massive expertise to call on. Many of us have managed college recoveries and found ways of preserving what matters for our students. Could we pool that knowledge more effectively? Even pairing like colleges from different regions could make a difference in sharing what works. Could we start informal sharing of resources without getting close to what might be perceived as too-threatening merger discussions? Bid writers, quality teams? Perhaps we will even find a Gandalf between us. As Tolkien said, ‘little by little (we may) travel far’ and since ‘you certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after’ perhaps we should start looking for our own solutions, together.