The decision to cut the building budget for FE colleges endangers everyone’s future, writes John Hayes
Educational progress and facility construction go hand in hand. Investment in education ensures an equitable future in which students are no longer disenfranchised by being taught in decrepit huts. But the government’s decision to place a spending moratorium on the £5.6 billion Building Colleges for the Future programme of Further Education (FE) college expansion endangers this future. And the cost to society and the economy, particularly to already beleaguered construction and architecture firms, will be exorbitant.
The full effects of this decision are being calculated, but we know that projects at 144 colleges have been seriously affected by this cut and £5 billion will be required to cover them. Most worryingly, further education minister Siôn Simon has failed to give any assurances that FE colleges will not go bust.
Colleges do not bear this risk alone. Every single one of those 144 projects involves several partners and builders – and architects have already suffered loss of income and security. The AJ has highlighted the issues and next week will publish a special report chronicling the devastating effect on architects of projects collapsing. The Conservative Party is well aware of this dire situation and is proposing a course of action to deal with it.
In the long term, the FE funding system must be streamlined to provide a stable framework
The crisis has emerged from government mismanagement. The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) has been hamstrung because of the constant reorganisations foisted upon it from government. The splitting of the school and FE capital budgets was needlessly bureaucratic, compounded by a lack of proper planning and monitoring by the LSC. Indeed, the gung-ho attitude of the LSC towards capital spend resulted in many colleges being encouraged to develop projects with partners that now may never be finished.
In the short term, the government has to be honest with those involved in these projects and let them know where they stand. The move to replace the LSC with three different quangos, each with conflicting roles, comes at precisely the wrong time. It must stay and sort out the mess it, and the government, created.
In the long term, the FE funding system must be streamlined to provide a stable framework. FE colleges and their partners will have one point of contact, and encouraged to develop the projects that suit them and their communities in a realistic fashion. These proposals provide some respite for those caught in this bonfire of administrative ineptitude, but the truth is, the way this crisis has been dealt with is unforgivable.
While skills secretary John Denham engages in an unedifying game of shoot the messenger – the most recent casualty being the CEO of the LSC, Mark Haysom – surely it is time for the government to acknowledge its failings and start taking action to cushion the blow of its follies.
John Hayes is shadow minister for higher education, lifelong learning and skills