Austerity cuts sacrifice two ‘lost generations’ seeking adult education and training

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   Policy Consortium member Ian Nash considers the recent report from the Association of Colleges about cuts in funding for adults.

Coalition Government policies for further education are increasingly being exposed as, at best, ill-considered. The latest to ring the alarm bell is the Association of Colleges, in a report this week which warns that – as a result of a 40% cut in cash terms over the life of this Government and more expected – adult education and training in England will not exist in any recognisable form by 2020.

This is no idle back-of-an-envelope, pre-election prediction but hard and sober calculation based on a raft of researches by the RCU, surveys of colleges and published data from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), among others.

Why does this matter? Ministers have repeatedly said adults and employers should stop relying on the state, as cash in an age of austerity had to be concentrated on the young – a message repeated by BIS officials and ministers’ advisers during and after George Osborne’s budget last week. It matters for two reasons: first because the policies that emerged in the name of austerity have failed to create the incentives expected of them, not least around the question of adult loans from age 19 or 21 on and for low-level courses, which the BIS consultation response has effectively kicked into the long grass, at least until the next Comprehensive Spending Review. Second, because the cash was never actually focused on the younger group – outside the school system. As a result, the 16 to 24-year-olds in colleges who have borne the brunt of successive cuts have become a new ‘lost generation’.

They are lost because they were short-changed at 16, when there was an 11% funding gap with schools that grew worse as they progressed. And now, since they depend on well-funded adult learning and skills provision to redeem their situation, they find that particular purse all but empty.

So, what are the headline issues in the AoC research? A survey of member colleges estimates that as adult education funding decreases by 24% for the academic year 2015-16, more than 190,000 adult learning places could be lost in this next year alone. Areas likely to be hit hardest are Health, Public Services and Care, and Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Even though the country’s health and social care system is in crisis, essential courses fall by over 40,000 places next year, says the AoC, while ICT courses could lose over 10,500 places.

Since the big squeeze from 2012 onwards, when the number of adult students on Level 3 courses fell by 17.9 per cent, the AoC is concerned that there will no longer be an adult education system to support students aged 19 and over by 2020. Martin Doel, AoC chief executive, points out that this comes at a time when the proportion of over-50s in the workforce is set to rise to a third of the workforce by 2020 (from 27 per cent at the moment) and 50 per cent of workers aged over 55 are proposing to work beyond the state pension age.

Ironically, the group now aged around 50 include a previous ‘lost generation’ who suffered under the recession-driven cuts of the 1970s and 80s. Among those who succeeded, often against the odds, are many who now need retraining in new industry skills for employment – a priority identified 10 years ago in the Treasury-commissioned Leitch reviews of UK skills to the year 2020.

“These cuts could mean an end to the vital courses that provide skilled employees for the workforce such as nurses and social care workers,” he says. “No college can absorb that kind of cut without major disruption and undermining of services.” Two reasons for the crisis now looming were the obsession with Apprenticeships, even when wholly inappropriate, and the failure of minsters and advisers to understand the diversity of adult education and training needs colleges were already serving.

“The Apprenticeship has become a synonym for skills system. It is not, and it is not the answer in all cases; nor is the Traineeship initiative. Either they don’t have a job or, if they do have one, they don’t necessarily have an employer who will train them.”

The government has talked up the success of Apprenticeships and claims to have created two million in the life of the Coalition. In fact, only a small minority were true Apprenticeships, while most were either in-house training schemes masquerading as genuine, in the early years of the Coalition, or fell well short of the two-year minimum accepted in all other leading industrial nations.

Also, the focus on apprenticeship is actually a cover for a transfer of state support from citizens to corporations. The ability of individuals to improve themselves through education has been sacrificed in order to subsidise the training that employers should be funding themselves. Ministers have also retreated from every measure requiring employers to pay and now propose a voucher system sometime soon – but not before the General Election.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million adults lost learning opportunities as a result of the austerity cuts, despite constant warnings of the consequences. David Hughes, NIACE Chief Executive, says: “I have been saying for the last year that we are facing a skills crisis. We should all be telling young people to get their state-funded learning in as quickly as they can. Because once they hit 21 there won’t be any support left. That is not a great scenario for a society in which people are living longer and wanting to contribute to society and work longer too.”

The ‘real priorities’ of Conservatives and Liberals in the run-up to the General Election were neatly identified by Mick Fletcher, a director of the RCU and member of the Policy Consortium, in an analysis of the Budget in the current edition of FE Week: “The average cost of a place in adult FE is around £670; so the £85m spent reducing the price of beer by a penny a pint might instead have provided places for 125,000 adults. So could the money spent subsidising ‘Granny bonds’ for pensioners – with cash to spare.”

Martin Doel describes support for the current adult education as “a pipeline that’s leaking all over the place. There is no sense of a progression pathway,” he says. “Alternatively, there are loads of systems leading to blind alleys.” Ministers failed to see the complexity, how some colleges were right to focus on the young, subsidising 19 to 20-year-olds, some buying into 25-plus, and others working though employers to upskill the workforce. “Making a single case around adult education and skills is difficult.”

He is not holding his breath for the outcome of the election. “There’s significant congruency around the importance of Apprenticeships. There are some positives in all three main party offers but there is no comprehensive view of a pipeline approach that takes people from where they are now Ian  Nash

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