Further education: cuts are unsustainable

bridge logo Colleges NI outlines the impact of cuts to the further education budget.

The further education (FE) sector in Northern Ireland has an annual turnover of £260 million and continues to be at the heart of economic recovery and growth in partnership with business and industry. The FE sector has driven significant efficiencies over the past ten years, culminating in mergers and a more streamlined, efficient and business-focused curriculum offering. The sector supports over 90,000 learners per year across six regional FE Colleges and over 40 campuses.

The budget reductions announced in the June Monitoring Round are the first in a number of cut-backs in the foreseeable future. The imminent October Monitoring Round cuts have yet to be announced – but are likely to be just the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Such significant budget cuts to the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) will have a devastating impact on the FE sector. The sector plays a key role in providing education and skills to underpin economic growth and support the Northern Ireland (NI) economy. It should be recognised that it delivers a high quality provision to learners – 43 per cent of whom are from the most deprived backgrounds – yet retention and achievement rates are 89 per cent and

87 per cent respectively. The sector also addresses the failings within the schools’ education system – ‘picking up the pieces’ where 29 per cent of the NI working age population have left compulsory education with no formal qualifications.

For many of these learners, FE remains their final opportunity where other parts of the education system has failed them and the majority of students across all the Colleges (70 per cent) are studying at Level 2 or below (e.g. GCSE level or below). Whilst the sector would like to offer more Level 3+ provision, it must continue to serve the needs of those students who have been failed by the schools system.

Funding cuts to the FE sector (over and above potential job Iosses for staff in colleges) will result in:

• fewer places on courses for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners in our society;

• young people, who have already been failed by the schools’ education system, being turned away from FE thus increasing the number of individuals not in education, employment or training (NEETs);

• a reduction in the number of places for affordable routes to higher education within an FE setting;

• an inability to continue meeting the skills needs of our employers through upskilling, business support and knowledge transfer activities; and

• a reduced capacity to work with business, industry and government in delivering the Northern Ireland Executive’s Economic Strategy and Programme for Government.

Gerry Campbell, Chief Executive Officer of Colleges NI, said: “Cuts of this nature will affect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our society and may hinder economic growth and recovery. At a time when industry is telling us there is a skills shortage, to be cutting back on funding to train young people and adults is counter-productive.”

“This is not sustainable, particularly when we need to strengthen the skills of our workers to ensure we are able to compete in the global market. Instead, the Executive needs to look at reshaping the 14-19 policy agenda to place equal emphasis on higher technical and vocational education, to ensure there are good alternatives to the academic routes.”

Karen Lennon, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Colleges NI

Email: Tel: 02890 684952

thumb-large-12 Did you know that the FE sector…

Has world class facilities and experienced lecturers with industry expertise?

There has been £340 million of investment in capital build over the last decade which has resulted in a modern College estate and industry standard facilities. Since 2007, there have been significant mergers resulting in larger Colleges – some now on a par with the largest FE Colleges in England. The sector encompasses six regional FE Colleges and 40 campuses across Northern Ireland and is supported by over 4,100 full time equivalent staff. This includes lecturers with relevant business and industry experience.

Is addressing the failings of the post primary education system?

The Colleges continue to ‘pick up the pieces’ from schools where two in every five children leave without five GCSEs. Eighty per cent of our 2020 workforce has already left compulsory education and many lack sufficient qualifications and skills to meet the future needs of our economy.

Our Colleges continue to meet the needs of young people failed by the education system and also upskill many adult returners. The majority of students across all the Colleges (70 per cent) are studying at Level 2 or below – significant budget cuts will potentially impact on this cohort.

Offers an affordable ‘HE in FE’ option?

The Colleges have a long-established partnership with higher education (HE) institutions in delivering intermediary HE to over 11,000 students annually. In fact, nearly one-fifth of all HE students in Northern Ireland study at one of the six regional FE Colleges.

In times of austerity, it should be recognised that a higher education route within the FE sector is significantly more affordable than the traditional university route allied to the fact that the ‘HE in FE’ route also supports students’ employability skills and successful employment outcomes.

Is engaging with the vast majority of post primary schools in NI?

The FE sector is ensuring that the requirements of the Entitlement Framework are being met across the post-primary sector in Northern Ireland. There is strong evidence that there are increased educational outcomes where FE is helping deliver the Entitlement Framework – in terms of the outcomes for the 9,200 school pupils involved in 2012-13, the retention and achievement rates were 97 per cent and 93 per cent.

Has a strong employer focus?

The Colleges recognise that practical work experience, combined with academic delivery, is the ideal formula for students as they progress on their educational journey. The Colleges work in partnership with over 10,000 companies through work placements and industry partnerships which directly support upskilling to meet employer needs.

Is targeting the hardest to reach learners and yet achieves excellent results?

The Colleges support 90,000 learners per year and 43 per cent of these learners come from the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland. In targeting the most disadvantaged learners, the sector has a retention rate of 89 per cent and an achievement rate of 87 per cent.

Is advocating changes to the 14-19 policy agenda?

Recent statistics have shown that College enrolments for learners aged 16 are falling (as post-primary schools retain more sixth form students) but College enrolments for those aged 17 are increasing (following a ‘wasted year’ of AS levels). This points to a need to focus on the 14-19 policy debate in Northern Ireland.

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