By Stephen Scott, RLB UK National Head of Education
As we speed towards the general election and the end of 2019, one thing’s for sure, it has certainly been an interesting year for Further Education (FE). From the outcome of the Augar review recommending urgent investment in the Further Education (FE) sector to Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s promise to “super-charge Further Education” at the Conservative Party conference and Boris Johnson’s announcement to invest £1.8 billion to bring the condition of the FE estate up to a good standard – there is plenty of positive news.
In fact, investment in the FE sector is one topic where the main parties are in agreement, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats making similar statements in the run up to the election, stressing their commitment to inject cash into further and adult education, to address the skills shortage and support a culture of life-long learning.
So, the message seems to be very clear – more money is coming, although we don’t yet know the amount, which political ‘flavour’, what strings will be attached or how the money will be accessed. It is clear that whatever money is on offer, it will only go some way towards addressing the decade-long under-investment in the sector, particularly as it arrives against a background of rising student numbers, diluting its impact. Nevertheless, recognition of the sector’s challenges and the political ‘will’ to start addressing them seems to be there and this is really good news.
Now is the time for colleges to act. FE colleges will have to work up robust plans to make sure any money is spent wisely. In advance of knowing the detail, colleges can get on the front foot by doing their background work. This will ensure they are in the best position to access any funding pot when it is released.
Those colleges that take the time to review their estates, really understand the needs in order to deliver its academic strategy and create fully developed plans – both in terms of building improvements and larger scale capital projects – will be best placed to grasp the opportunity when it comes. The AoC’s ‘Building Knowledge’ website provides some independent guidance and best practice advice on this and at RLB we are working with a number of colleges on potential plans.
What we don’t – and won’t – know for a while yet is what mechanism the funding will be delivered through and the related administrative process. The current system is certainly long overdue for an overhaul and there is a great opportunity to make it more efficient and less labour intensive for all involved.
RLB is currently working for the Department of Education (DfE) on its Condition Data Collection Survey of the college estate across the UK. This is providing the DfE with a more up to date overview of the condition of the FE estate and will no doubt be highlighting those areas where investment is most needed. It will be interesting to see if, after this exercise is complete, there will be a move to a more centralised planned approach to investment going forward.
These are exciting times for the Further Education sector, having been in the shadows of Higher Education for some time it is finally getting some well-deserved attention and investment. We may not have full 2020 vision yet, but the outlook is promising, let’s hope this time next year we are showcasing how the investment is being used.