PA Consulting’s further and higher education expert, Mike Boxall, discusses how Further Education colleges could spend and invest their money with the launch of the National Skills Fund.
The launch of the National Skills Fund promises significant investment in further education.
In September 2020, the prime minister announced the details of his government’s plan for a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, including the £2.5bn National Skills Fund. In a speech at Exeter College, Boris Johnson promised to transform the skills system so that everyone has the opportunity to train and retrain in areas deemed desirable by employers. With UK unemployment figures rising to 5.0% in the three months to November 2020, addressing the labour market’s skills gap will form a critical piece of Johnson’s plan to “build back better”. While further lockdowns may have risked the progress, the purpose of the plan can only be more keenly felt.
The prime minister made reference in his Exeter speech to putting £1.5bn into “upgrading and improving colleges across the country, fixing the leaky ceilings” – spending that is in clear demand. According to the Association of Colleges, the further education sector spent an average of almost £1bn a year between 2010 and 2015 on buildings, land and resources, following research that identified positive returns from this kind of investment.
All change, or gentle steps?
For The Manchester College, part of the LTE group, the announcement of the National Skills Fund and its associated funding presents the opportunity of a welcome financial boost, but not necessarily any immediate or significant change in how they approach their activities.
Now that a list of courses has been published, many institutions will have a clearer picture of the areas where they could invest. However, Mike says that perhaps the most obvious direction for spending is anything that aids this kind of local partnership and network-building: “Some of the best practice I’ve seen with regard to boosting skills and employability is when college and college groups have sought to build relationships with local employers from the ground up, like this example from The Manchester College.”
Mike suggests that colleges would be well advised to consider potential spending carefully, and to focus on investments that may help local networks. He says: “In terms of spending, I think that anything that could support this kind of network-building – information exchange systems, for example, or the digital enhancement of these – could be particularly useful going forward.”