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Respect FE - deal with skill shortages

UCU further education college members rally for pay, London, November 2023. Photo Workers.

Turn on the news or read the newspaper and you hear “skills shortage”, and “shortage occupation list” for legal migration. But why is there a skills shortage and what is the national plan for addressing it?

This should be a time of great opportunity. Unlike many other countries we are in a decade when Britain’s population of 16– to 18-year-olds is increasing. The number in this age bracket in England is projected to rise by 18 per cent between 2021 and 2030.

This should be celebrated as an opportunity to address skills shortages. But unless things change, it looks like the increased population of young people will mean less funding for each student in that age bracket.

Several major problems are linked to this. Over decades Britain has neglected the funding of post-16 education as a whole – and in particular pay for teaching staff in the sector. And the Further Education (FE) sector is expected to take on board any education which does not fit elsewhere.

Historically FE colleges were key institutions for the specialised skills training needed in industry, agriculture and so on. But they have evolved to become general providers of post-16 education such as BTEC and the new T Level courses.


New qualifications have proved to be a politically inspired muddle. Few students have signed up to T levels, leading to courses closing. The government’s answer? To announce yet another change – the Advanced British Standard to replace A Levels and T Levels!

The colleges are also responsible for many general courses, like English as a second or additional language, and for giving a second chance to those who missed out on qualifications during secondary school.

But they have also sustained funding cuts, multiple and excessive demands, and political decisions to introduce new qualifications without adequate consultation or funding. Together these factors have combined to create what the National Audit Office (NAO) has described, with good reason, as a “fragile” sector.

Post-16 funding

The FE sector has undergone a long period of reduced funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported in December 2022 that funding for the 16-19 age group had experienced the biggest drop in funding of any education sector. It contrasted this long-term funding decline with growth in primary and secondary schools.

‘Britain has neglected the funding of post-16 education…’

The whole process of securing funding is complex too. FE providers are allocated funds from different sources depending on the type of courses they provide and on the age of their students. And there is a separate pot for capital funding, upgrading the college estate and similar improvements.

As a result the politicians who have presided over this complexity rely on briefings from the House of Commons Library to understand it. And as the NAO report points out, the costs of administering this complexity takes valuable finance away from the student – and it also creates opportunity cost, staff efforts directed towards finance and not education.

The NAO found that in February 2020, financial woes had forced 115 colleges (nearly half all colleges in England) into early intervention or formal intervention. The Education and Skills Funding Agency spent over £26 million on two college insolvencies between April 2019 and May 2020.

The prolonged squeeze on FE finances has been described as the long decline, quite rightly. Between 2010-11 and 2021-22 the recommended pay increase for college staff was 1 per cent or lower in every year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that 40 per cent of colleges paid the 1 per cent, a small number awarded slightly more, and a third did not increase staff pay at all.

The University and College Union (UCU), which represents FE teachers, calculates that real pay has fallen by 35 per cent in this period. Predictably, the squeeze on pay has in turn undermined staff retention.

College teachers are now far more likely to leave their profession than other public sector workers. The most recent data available showed that 25 per cent of college teachers left the profession after one year compared with 15 per cent of school teachers.

We can’t address a national skills shortage when those teaching the skills are not being retained.

Respect FE

Under the slogan Respect FE, the UCU is conducting the biggest wave of strike action in FE colleges for years. They are fighting for a pay rise to match recent inflation, for improved workloads and national negotiations.

‘College workers are now far more likely to leave their profession than other public sector workers, even more so than school teachers…’

They have demanded a 15.4 per cent rise based on the January 2023 RPI increase plus 2 per cent. As well as pay they have demanded that college employers address excessive workloads. Furthermore, they want the current system of annual pay recommendations by the Association of Colleges to be replaced by binding national negotiations in future.

The campaign is already showing signs of success, even without strikes in several colleges. Thirteen colleges settled even before the national ballot closed at the end of October. And since the November strikes were announced, UCU members have accepted a negotiated deal in twenty more colleges in England. Strikes took place at six colleges and two college groups in mid-November; the dispute continues.

Valuing and thereby retaining the skills of teachers in FE is an essential first step in a wider battle to rebuild an education sector which is the basis for skills development in young people and many adult learners who want to learn new skills.