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What does the general election result mean for colleges?

13 December 2019

It’s pretty safe to say, that was an interesting election and campaign. For the first time in ten years, we have a government with a strong majority. It is also a government with a clear mandate for moving forward rapidly on Brexit. We might begin to see an end to Brexit dominating Parliamentary time at the expense of domestic policy issues, although we all know that the Withdrawal Agreement was always expected to be the ‘easy’ part of exiting. While trade, security, freedom of movement and many other issues will likely be trickier and that’s before we factor in other trade agreements with places like the USA. The Conservatives gained seats in lots of previous Labour strongholds (Leigh and North West Durham, for example), the Labour Party has achieved probably its worst result since 1935, the LibDems lost their leader, the SNP dominated again in Scotland and the Brexit Party failed to win anything. So, as well as Brexit proceeding at a pace we have not seen before, the question of a Scottish independence referendum will probably not go away. Labour lost seats and votes compared to 2017 and seems destined to have internal arguments about the future leadership and what went wrong. Former MPs who switched party or stood on an independent ticket didn’t win anywhere (including Anne Milton, independent in Guildford). Colleges have lost quite a few supporters, mainly from the Labour side because they lost so many seats (for example Nic Dakin, former principal of John Leggott College, James Frith, Gordon Marsden to name three) but there are a lot of new MPs for us to entice as new supporters as well as continuing supporters from all parties who will remain important to us. The Conservative Party has promised a Queen’s speech before Christmas, Brexit by 31 January and a budget in February. We can expect to see some pretty fast action on ministerial appointments, lots of work behind the scenes on delivering some of the manifesto promises in the Budget and wide-ranging system reforms for colleges in time for the spending review next year. The Conservative manifesto was fairly light on new policies and spending commitments, but that was seen as a tactic for the election. I’m pretty sure that it masks a wider set of reforms and investments which we were discussing with Gavin Williamson and his team before the election and which officials have been exploring with us for some time now. I expect those plans to accelerate and start to crystallise in the coming months. We can expect the £2bn to ‘upgrade the entire further education college estate’ (page 36 of the manifesto) to happen, probably announced in the budget in February but with the funding scheduled for 2021 and beyond. There will be another Institute of Technology prospectus probably in the first half of 2020. The pledge to ‘create a new National Skills Fund worth £3bn’ (page 36) will take a little longer to launch, with scant detail about it and a lot of work to do to consult and develop the concept. Likewise, there will be a lot of detailed work on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to engage with. It’s also worth pulling out a copy of the Augar report and at the very least re-reading the Skills and FE chapters which I think will help to set the direction of travel for post-18 policy. The Conservative manifesto said that the Augar Review made ‘thoughtful recommendations…. and we will consider them carefully’ (page 37). Beyond that, there are other commitments in the manifesto which we will pursue, including: Page 13 - seeking at least parity with the £5k per secondary pupil for colleges and to at least match the £30k starting salary for school teachers; Page 20 - seeking to influence thinking on immigration policy and using the data to support strategic investment in skills which immigration will not provide; Page 23 - get involved in the commitment to National Citizens Service and the Youth Futures Foundation work on improving employment outcomes; Page 26 - get involved in thinking on the £500m for new youth clubs and services; Page 29 - seek to influence thinking on the proposed English Devolution White Paper promised for 2020; Page 55 - find out more about the 2 million new high quality jobs in clean growth and the role colleges can play in that. It looks likely to be a busy year, and one in which we can expect to play a central role. With your help, strong campaigning and clever influencing, we will see more investment in colleges and better policies. Our Campaigns and Influencing Guide can be viewed here. Make no mistake, this was a significant election for many reasons. We need to work together to make sure that it leads to a better decade ahead than the one we are about to leave.