Covid-hit UK further education colleges need cash injection or face closure

Dr Paul Phillips is in what he calls “a very difficult situation”. Weston College, the further education college he runs in Weston-super-Mare, is facing a big coronavirus-shaped hole in its budget. He needs to spend at least an extra £750,000 on Covid-19 safety adjustments and catch-up courses, but expects his revenue from apprenticeships in industries like tourism, hospitality and construction to drop by up to £2m. “I’ve got a massive redundancy issue. I’m already restructuring.”

The government this month announced a £1bn education catch-up fund to help English pupils get up to speed with what they have missed in school during lockdown, but it decided that no extra money should go to the 16-plus sector.

Now, further education colleges are facing severe financial difficulty and some will not survive the Covid-19 crisis, teachers and college leaders have warned. “Unless the government provides a financial lifeline to colleges next academic year, it is highly likely that some will eventually end up becoming insolvent, and others will have to make significant cutbacks,” said Anne Murdoch, college leadership adviser at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

The government’s own commissioner for further education, Richard Atkins, admitted last week that around 30 to 40 colleges are currently “at risk of running out of cash”. Speaking to the education select committee, he also warned that colleges’ income would be badly damaged by “a potential 50% plus drop in apprenticeships” from the economic slump.

Dr Paul Phillips of Weston College

Dr Paul Phillips of Weston College says he is facing a ‘massive redundancy issue’.

The coronavirus outbreak has decimated the commercial income of further education colleges, which often let out their facilities for conferences and run services such as restaurants and hair salons, staffed by students. Colleges must also meet all the costs of the extra cleaning and social-distancing measures that will be required in classrooms next year as a result of the pandemic, while also facing a reduction in demand for some vocational courses.

“So many further education courses are attached to industry and jobs. So if there’s a collapse in the jobs market, you might see colleges reducing the courses that are on offer to young people,” said Niamh Sweeney, spokesperson for the National Education Union. “There’s a very weak relationship between the government’s industrial strategy and colleges. The government doesn’t see that there is a link between good, industrial-related training in colleges and onward employment. This is the biggest industrial slump that the country might ever have and further education is the perfect place to overcome that.”

The ASCL said the sector was already desperately short of funding thanks to a decade of austerity and neglect. “There was a funding crisis before the pandemic. The pandemic has just further exaggerated it,” said Philips. “I’m worried that we can’t survive and deliver high quality provision without extra funding coming into the college and the further education sector.”

Last week, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, admitted that “for decades, we have failed to give further education the investment it deserves”. He ditched the “absurd mantra” of wanting half of all young people to go on to higher education and promised to create an employer-led, “German-style” further education system instead, saying: “From now on, our mantra must be further education, further education, further education”.

He did not announce any new money for the sector. The national funding rate for 16- and 17-year-olds has been frozen at £4,000 per student since 2013. By contrast, the government provides £5,371 in average annual funding per pupil aged 11 to 16 and £9,124 per student in higher education, according to campaigners Raise the Rate. Further education students have not been entitled to the free school meals voucher scheme or free laptops during the lockdown, and further education colleges cannot access the extra funding being provided this term to schools suffering exceptional Covid-19-related costs.

“It’s ridiculously unfair. It’s time there was an equity of approach between the school academy sector, further education and higher education – I’m sick and tired of further education being the poor relation,” says Philips.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the government has provided unprecedented support and claimed they are “providing an additional £400m for college and sixth forms this year and £1.5bn to upgrade college buildings and facilities”, as well as additional funding for traineeships.