We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
We’ve got five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got
Not, perhaps, Mr. Bowie’s most butter-cutting lyrics, but still the chorus that opened Ziggy Stardust, the album that made his reputation. It was a concept album to start all concept albums. In this case, the concept was to see how humankind would react when told that the Earth only had enough resources left to last for five more years.
“What will an FE college look like in five years time?”
When someone asks you that question it’s really hard to make those glib answers stay firmly on the tip of your tongue.
“Empty?” Isn’t the answer to give.
If a week is a long time in politics, then five years is more like a lifetime, and certainly the longest possible lifetime of the next parliament. Anyone who tells you that they know what an FE college will look like by the end of the next parliament is only bluffing, believe me. An empty bluff.
Whatever miracles the Skills Funding Agency may have performed recently in allegedly reducing the BIS-led cut on non-Apprenticeship adult funding next year from 32% down to ‘only’ 24%, twenty-four per cent is still feeling like the end of the world. Following on the loss of over a million adult learning places in the previous five years, it takes only three more cuts the size of this one, for there to be nothing left at all.
So five years might be overly optimistic.
Vince Cable told a fringe LibDem event last year that his civil servants had put an option to him to save money by axing all Further Education colleges in England and Wales. He claimed they told him, “Nobody will really notice.” Ain’t that the truth?
Except, of course, that people are noticing. OK, not noticing as much as if a quarter had just been slashed off the schools’ budget for next year, but noticing nonetheless. Increasing media attention has been put on the skills debate. The UCU petition is probably even more remarkable for the broad backing it has received from employers’, staff and students’ organisations than for the nearly 30,000 people who have signed it so far.
Tomorrow sees the official start of the 2015 General Election campaign. Past campaigns were summed up by the phrase, “it’s the economy, stupid!” It might still be, but the economy will only be as good as the skills our people have to make it work. As Lynne Sedgemore pointed out last week, half the 13.5 million job vacancies in the next decade will have to be filled by adults whose inability to retrain and learn new skills could limit our economic prosperity.
So how shall we conduct ourselves at this time?
Firstly, as a sector, we need to continue to make the impact on learners, employers and our communities that we undoubtedly do. We need to conduct ourselves with purpose and confidence, each of us anchored in the mission, vision and values of our organisation. In this volatile environment we have to be clear what the point of our colleges is, to hold fast to what we are striving to achieve, and to stick close to our values, particularly the values of inclusion, innovation and excellence that drive our collective behaviour.
Secondly, we also have to continue to find better ways to tell our story, to raise ‘brand awareness’ (ugh!) of the learning and skills sector. Ours is a potentially confusing message, so we have to make it clear. We are the education sector with an ‘Olympic’ legacy. We look after the economic health of the nation by training elite athletes with higher skills, and enabling people with lower skills to take the first steps towards economic fitness.
And thirdly, at this Election time, we all need to make sure that our question, our funding, our solutions, are on the Election agenda. Short of creating vocational career pathways into the higher echelons of the civil service that prefer BTECs to Bachelor degrees from Oxbridge; engaging, questioning, and lobbying at Election time might be our only short-term strategy.
And you can vote. I am ashamed to say that I have never been a member of a political party: but I have always voted. This time round I shall vote for whoever shows the most commitment to learning and skills, and recognises that, despite their obvious importance, there is more to learning and skills than A Levels and Apprenticeships.
We’ve got five years: and just over five weeks to decide.