By Kate Hilpern
Today, for the first time ever, a college principal has closed his college to allow staff and students to march against the government funding cuts to the further education (FE) sector.
‘We have got to the position where it is no longer tenable to go on having polite conversations with officials from the Treasury that lead nowhere. So now we want to make a bit of noise,’ says Gerry McDonald.
Both staff and students at New City College are behind him and many are accompanying him on the march from Pall Mall to Westminster to mark Colleges Week, a campaign organised by the Association of Colleges (AoC) to protest against eight years of underfunding and to raise awareness of the sector more generally.
With a massive 25,000 local people taking courses at New City College every year, across six campuses – all of which will be shut today – McDonald’s move is certainly radical. ‘It’s obviously not ideal for a college to have to close down to make a stand but it’s one of those things where it’s got quite desperate,’ Aaron Hussey, spokesperson for the AoC, told us. ‘One of the problems we constantly face is that people in government are really supportive of FE – saying colleges are brilliant, we couldn’t do it without you etc – but it’s time they put their money where their mouth is. Nice words don’t pay staff.’
Asked whether he thinks other colleges may shut their doors for a day to make similar points in the future, Hussey said, ‘We really hope not. We hope it will be effective enough that others don’t have to do the same.’
But I wonder if it’s a sign of things to come in the education sector. Earlier this month, we reported how headteachers left their schools to take part in a march to make a stand against school funding cuts. Again, staff and parents were, in the main, supportive. ‘I don’t think I came across a single colleague – and I spoke to a lot – at the march that didn’t say every single message they received from parents by email or verbally was in favour of us making a stand to try and help their children’s education,’ says Tony Markham, head of Herne Junior School in Petersfield.
As with the schools situation, figures for college funding do not make for cheery reading – and in many ways, things are worse. FE funding – which has been frozen since 2013 - has fallen by 22 per cent over the past eight years, while colleges faced higher salary, pension, national insurance and other costs and educated more students, according to the London Economics thinktank. Investment in young people’s education reduces drastically once they turn 16 and in September, the Institute for Fiscal Studies expressed concern about whether FE would even be able to deliver government reforms with no additional funding.
The value of college staff pay is a particularly sensitive issue - college teachers earn on average £7,000 less than school teachers and yet FE lecturers have to be qualified in both their own profession or trade and as teachers.
This situation is not sustainable and ultimately impacts on individuals, communities, college staff, businesses and the wider economy, according to New City College – and indeed other college principals who are marching today.
The AoC is optimistic that the march will make a difference. ‘We are really fortunate in the way that so many people in government – cross party and including the government’s skills minister Anne Milton – are very supportive towards colleges. But it’s time to move those words and promises to action,’ says Hussey. ‘If colleges didn’t exist, you’d have to invent them to address the problems of the 21st century.’
Two-thirds of young people take their A levels in a college. One in 10 degrees is awarded in a college. Colleges change lives in the same way that schools and universities do, both academically and on a vocational level. But because officials in Whitehall have mostly gone straight from school to university, McDonald is among those who believes they just don’t get colleges.
If the prejudice and lack of funding continues, I suspect other colleges, as well as other educational institutions that face similar problems, may quite literally follow in McDonald’s footsteps..