26 Feb 2024

Colleges Week 2024: David Hughes CBE talks elections, levy reform, funding challenges and skills gaps

To mark the start of Colleges Week 2024, we interviewed David Hughes CBE, Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges. David shares his insights with us about the opportunities and challenges facing the further education and skills sector in 2024 including funding conditions, tight local authority budgets, the apprenticeship levy, skills gaps, and the role of UCAS in advertising apprenticeships.

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Our interview begins by discussing the implications of the government’s controversial English and maths funding condition policy for FE students.

Hughes makes his objection to the policy clear based on three primary concerns. “Firstly, it’s fundamentally unfair”, he says. “Young people with poor GCSE results are among those struggling the most with education.”

Mandating up to seven hours of English and maths per week in addition to the vocational paths they wish to pursue is “demotivating”, he says, for students seeking to move beyond a system that “has already failed them once.”

The plan, he argues, is also “unworkable.” “Colleges are already facing a deficit of around 2,000 English and maths teachers. With an additional estimated need for 1,200 teachers under the new funding condition, we are looking at a gap of approximately 3,200 teachers that simply cannot be filled,” he explains.

Finally, Hughes highlights concerns about the “lack of consultation and evidence” behind the decision. “In recent years, there has been a productive dialogue between policymakers and educational institutions on such matters”, he says.

He notes that it appears there was no impact assessment or engagement with educational institutions. “This undermines the potential for collaborative solutions which could more effectively address young people’s educational needs”, he adds.

Hughes speculates that this oversight is symptomatic of the government’s lack of awareness on the practical implications of their policy changes for colleges.

General Election

When asked about potential changes to the Further Education (FE) and skills landscape due to the impending general election, Hughes shares sentiments expressed by Peter Aldous MP in our edition last month.

“There’s a broad consensus across parties on the importance of skills and post-16 education”, he says. “I believe a cross-party discussion under Chatham House rules would reveal a 90 per cent agreement on many issues. The divergence lies in the 'how'.” 

He adds that “Labour seems likely to focus more on regional disparities and the challenges faced by disadvantaged youth.” 

While he thinks their proposed changes appear “modest”, Hughes appreciates the shared “emphasis on skills for employment, productivity, and the pivotal role of colleges.”

“This continuity suggests that, regardless of the governing party, the fundamental objectives for education and skills development will remain aligned with the needs of employers and the economy”, he says.

Funding challenges

Hughes also touches on the sector’s “vulnerability” due to its “relatively modest size.” “It’s clear that colleges and local authorities bore the brunt of austerity measures”, he says, “and unlike schools and higher education, the FE sector lacks significant representation in influential circles, such as the House of Lords, which further diminishes our capacity to be heard.”

He expresses concern that tight budgets mean resources for FE will become increasingly scarce, regardless of the government in power. 

He explains, “Historically, when budgets tighten, FE and colleges are often the first to feel the impact due to our lower profile and the limited media attention we receive. Despite enjoying a period of enhanced recognition and respect, there's a looming threat that the forthcoming years may witness a regression. The anticipated fiscal constraints could result in our sector facing disproportionate cutbacks, undoing the progress made in elevating our status and contributions to education and the wider economy.”

Despite enjoying a period of enhanced recognition and respect, there's a looming threat that the forthcoming years may witness a regression.
David Hughes CBE, Chief Executive of the AoC

While Hughes welcomes the Labour leader’s intention to shift more power to local level, he warns that “this ambition is contingent upon having a robust network of local government, which, at present, is considerably weakened due to financial austerity.” 

Levy reform and skills gaps

When asked about the success of the apprenticeship levy, Hughes claims the initial assumption that giving employers control would lead to wise decisions has proven flawed.
He points to reductions in young people and SMEs engaging with apprenticeships, a skew towards individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and a neglect of key economic sectors as proof that “the overall strategy is faltering.

Rather than scrap the levy, Hughes advocates for targeted government interventions to support high-value job apprenticeships, bolster key economic sectors, address regional disparities, and improve opportunities for disadvantaged youth. 

Hughes also outlines the case for “re-evaluating the subsidisation of degree-level qualifications for already privileged executives.” He explains that instead, we should look at models like the Republic of Ireland’s collective training fund, which addresses labour market needs more holistically.

“The need for a collective approach to skill development is crucial to enhance the skills of the population in line with market demands”, he says.

“Employers must understand the importance of collaborating with universities and colleges to facilitate effective employment strategies. However, the current funding systems, characterised by their complexity and restrictions, hinder this cooperation”.

We also touch on the need to simplify and unify the funding system to make it easier for employers to understand their options and engage with the appropriate educational partners.

UCAS and making informed decisions

Finally, we shift focus to the recently announced initiative to advertise apprenticeships on UCAS. Hughes raises concerns about whether this will be beneficial for the sector.

“Given the scale of the apprenticeship programme, with potentially hundreds of thousands of employers involved and a participant pool far exceeding the half million annual UCAS users, replicating the UCAS model for apprenticeships seems impractical”, he says.

He adds, “the complexity of apprenticeships, covering various qualifications across different levels and including actual job placements, presents a challenge far beyond UCAS's current remit.”

Despite UCAS advertisements and the abundance of data and reports about the apprenticeship landscape, Hughes points out that it remains “perplexingly opaque for many, including employers and potential apprentices.”

He explains that the ranking metrics “often fail to clarify the best pathways for apprenticeships, where the employer’s commitment and support play a pivotal role in the apprenticeship's value, not just the training provider's prestige.”

In reflecting on the insights provided by David Hughes CBE, it becomes clear that while the FE and skills sector faces significant challenges, from funding constraints to policy missteps, there lies a robust potential for reform. By engaging in collaborative dialogue, implementing targeted interventions, and reassessing current practices, the government can amplify the sector's voice on key issues affecting it.

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