Counting the Cost, Why Should Anyone Care If FE Disappears?

20/10/2015 15:55 BST | Updated 20/10/2016 10:12 BST

It seems certain that the regional reviews currently being carried out in the FE sector will result in some colleges disappearing altogether. There are those who have even suggested that the whole concept of Further Education Colleges is under threat and that it may cease entirely to exist in its present form. Certainly the various federation and merger models being discussed could threaten the local nature of the institutions. That connection with the area served by a particular college is a vital one. Being in and part of the community enables colleges to better understand the needs of their local economies and local people. Often, successful collaborations rely on personal relationships between educators and business people. Trust and an ability to communicate honestly are key, and these could be harder to maintain for those colleges with subordinate status within larger chains which might have differing priorities from those individual seats of learning.

Loss of local identity is only one of the risks. The government's target of three million new apprenticeships is an ambitious one. It is equivalent to the number of students trained and educated on all forms of course at FE College in a year. According to the Association of Colleges the sector has an overall 85% success rate which, bearing in mind many students have struggled at school by the time they enrol, is an astonishing figure.

The reviews are being undertaken quite simply, and this is something with which the government would not disagree, because the extraordinary level of funding cuts has left many colleges on their knees and all struggling to make ends meet. It is a circle the wagons defensive measure rather than one primarily aimed at efficiency for the sake of added educational value. Money is at the heart of this; but how many pounds might be lost by the saving of pennies?

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says, "the total NPV [net present value, ie return on investment] of all publically-funded FE qualifications started in 2013/14 is estimated to be £70bn over the years in which successful learners remain in the workforce and the average return for each qualification started is £34,000 (Source: BIS Research Paper Number 228 - Measuring the Net Present Value of Further Education in England). That represents a return on investment conservatively calculated at £20 pounds returned to the economy for every £1 spent. That figure relates specifically to England and is an almost identical number to the £73bn return from the universities sector for the whole United Kingdom (Source: Universities UK - The Impact of Universities on the UK Economy). To put those numbers into context, the creative industries contribute about £80bn per year, construction around £90bn and agriculture about £1bn. Of course, a great many of the people in those sectors also received their training in FE.

Government policy dictates continuing cuts in public spending and it is always unseemly to get into pointing the finger at more appropriate targets for "efficiencies" (even though we all doubtless have our own thoughts on where the axe might better fall). Benjamin Franklin said, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest," and it's certainly difficult to imagine money better spent for the good of any society.

Notwithstanding the evidence of economic impact delivered by FE, notwithstanding the calls from some ( to redirect funds from HE to FE, Area Reviews are happening and they are focussed on driving out efficiencies to address the dramatic reductions in funding n for Adult Skills. In my locality, the nine FE College and one Sixth Form College are working together to navigate our way through, to review, analyse and identify solutions together so that we collectively provide a first class skills system for our communities and our employers, before, during and after the review. We are working in partnership with our Local Enterprise Partnerships and our existing network of stakeholders to make sure that the 'baby does not get put out with the bathwater' and that whatever models emerge through the area review process FE remains at the heart of its community, the engine for social mobility and economic prosperity.