The new president of the Association of Colleges has warned that the higher education sector could be destabilised if the government does not provide “proper and fair funding” for further education in the upcoming spending review.
John Widdowson, who took over the presidency in August, said that further education colleges are “very important parts of the supply chain for higher education” and that if their funding is threatened any more it will affect the quality of students entering HE and subsequently the UK’s labour market.
“Our basic line [with the spending review] is that we need to have proper and fairer funding for the FE component of what we do,” he told Times Higher Education. “If that’s under threat in any way, it won’t affect just FE, it’ll affect [higher education institutions] as well because they’re not going to find as many students coming through who are able to take on the other challenges of degree-level study.
“One thing we’re looking for is whether we can get three years’ certainty over funding to allow us to plan. At the moment, we suffer cuts at short notice.”
Mr Widdowson suggested that funding security for FE was a no-brainer because of its record of providing the higher-level skills needed in the labour market. The “flexibility and openness” of FE colleges allows them to “fill those gaps other institutions leave”.
“Seventy per cent of the workforce that’s going to be around in 2020 is already there,” he said. “And yet we need high-level skills in the workplace. [Workers] are not going to take out time to do a three-year, full-time course. So we’ve got to find solutions that take HE, higher-level skills into the workplace.
“My fear is that by reducing the funding available, you reduce the supply of suitably qualified people both for full-time and part-time courses and, ultimately, the supply of qualified people for industry and employment.”
Although he was full of praise for the UK’s “world-renowned” HE sector, he called for a “stronger voice” from universities about the important role that FE colleges play in their success.
He added that some colleges with affiliations to universities might want to have more autonomy and to validate their own qualifications, questioning whether the current validation system was appropriate to “higher-level, vocational, professional, technical skills that colleges tend to work in”.
“There’s clearly an appetite to take that responsibility; it makes us much more responsive, and we can provide those professional and technical higher-level qualifications to employers quicker,” he said. “Having to join a queue for validation with any university can sometimes take far too long, and we’re dealing with subjects and employers sometimes which are not found in the universities we work with.
“I would hope that we could have a system which is sufficiently flexible to allow this to happen. What I would want is to see very clear bridges across and to make sure that any sort of system wasn’t seen to be inferior or second-class.”
For his one-year tenure as president, Mr Widdowson said that he was “not going to take the begging bowl out” but emphasised his commitment to championing his sector.
“What I want to do, most of all, is to get people to appreciate the essential role that FE as a sector plays,” he concluded.