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Fast action needed to save adult education

26 February 2015

This week’s grant letter to the Skills Funding Agency, and the linked letter from the SFA to colleges and providers, confirms another large funding cut for adult further education (FE). The consequences of protecting the £1.6 billion apprenticeship budget and expanding the unimpressive employer ownership programme is a 25% reduction in spending on adult FE for the 2015/16 academic year. After a brief period in which Ministers protected budgets, since 2012 there have been an increasingly fast withdrawal by the state from adult FE funding, with very little done to secure business or individual investment in its place. Further education loans remain restricted to those over the age of 24 taking longer, Level 3 courses, while Government messages to employers about training focus on apprenticeships and the funding available to support them. The consequences for some colleges are stark. The annual income in the average FE college is £27 million. Government decisions in 2015-16 will create a typical income reduction of 5% and a 3% increase in pension-related costs. This adds up to a £2 million hole before anything else is done. For those colleges in London, Birmingham and other cities that have traditionally specialised in FE for adults, the equivalent budget cut will be well over £4 million, closer to 15%. In other sectors like local government, ministers have put a floor under the annual reduction in income. In our sector, decisions sit with college governing bodies, which face strong official criticism if they do not act. But acting in this context means redundancies, course closures and suspending investment plans. Skills devolution promises will be pretty hollow if all that national government hands over is control of a rapidly diminishing budget. Adult further education is in year 10 of a 15-year cuts programme and could be entirely privately funded by 2020; at this point one third of the UK workforce will be over the age of 50. We need a new vision of how people learn through life and re-train that doesn't assume the only options are a £9,000 full-time university course or a YouTube video. AoC's manifesto suggests a system of education accounts, which can take contributions from Government grants, employers or the individual to fund education or training. Ideas and action are needed in this area - and they're needed fast.