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Colleges critical to the country's future

15 July 2015

It seems to have taken a bit of time for the Conservatives to find their feet as a single party government, but in the last week they’ve certainly found their way and have been releasing announcements with a vengeance. To start with, there was the Budget. To quote Julian Gravatt’s blog from last week, there were important announcements for colleges – namely on apprenticeship levies, scrapping of student grants and housing benefit. But there were also questions that remained around post-16 funding or future college income. We still wait for announcements from all of the agencies involved, and hope these will arrive soon. Next, there was the launch of “Fixing the Foundations” – the Government’s plan for a more productive Britain. What was evident, and welcome, throughout the plan was the importance of skills. A strong professional and technical education system is critical to increasing productivity and colleges are absolutely central to this. More detail is needed about the proposed Institutes of Technology (not to be confused with the Labour Party proposal for Institutes of Technical Education in their General Election manifesto!). The Government also said that local areas could reshape and re-commission local further education (FE) provision to ‘set it on an efficient and financially resilient footing’. This needs careful handling to ensure students, potential students and employers don’t lose opportunities. Again, Government says there will soon be more detail as to how these reviews are to be conducted. The final big Government announcement of the last week was very disappointing. On Monday, a raft of policy changes were introduced which impact international students in colleges. These included the removal of work rights for FE students, they cannot progress from a college to a university unless the course is an ‘embedded pathway programme’ and that colleges can no longer administer child visas for 16 and 17-year-olds. The rationale for these changes is based on apparent abuse being detected in the sector – though the evidence of this is being kept very close the Government’s chest. How can restricting a whole sector’s international student recruitment opportunities be a fair and proportionate response? International students not only provide an avenue for income generation for a sector that has already been hit by funding cuts, but also provide cultural advantages to students, from both here and abroad. The Government risks seriously restricting the UK's ability to attract international students in the long-term, which is why this policy needs to be urgently reconsidered. Come September, there's likely to be more announcements that impact the further education sector – whether directly or indirectly. We need to make sure that colleges are not disadvantaged in any way, and that the Government understands the importance FE has for the future of this country’s economy. Chris Walden is the Director of Public Affairs and Communications at the Association of Colleges.