Marguerite Hogg, Policy Development Adviser, Association of Colleges

During the Andrew Marr Show on @BBC last weekend, whilst I was munching on my cereal, former Labour Leader Ed Miliband was challenged on the cost of further government support to avert mass unemployment and simply said ‘The cost of not acting is greater than the cost of acting’.

COVID19 has seen our economy thrown into turmoil as much of it effectively ground to a halt in March.

Whilst much is being said about the impact on young people around economic scarring for those having been furloughed from sectors such as hospitality and catering and retail, amongst others, and suggested interventions from the government are rightly focusing around averting mass youth unemployment – something that AoC has also been supportive of – there is a real concern around what happens to older adults at risk?

The Ticking Time-Bomb of Post Furlough Shock

The government has shown significant support to businesses and individuals through schemes such as the Job Retention Scheme. But with government support to JRS reducing from August and then phasing out in October, there is now a ticking time-bomb to put in place support to adults in the workplace who may be subject to post-furlough shock and hurtle into an economic abyss without any safety blanket to catch them.

Adult education has suffered significantly, cut by 40% in the first half of the last decade and fixed in cash terms since then. Following the cuts, provision has shrunk, and participation fallen.

The lack of flexibilities within the Adult Education Budget has not helped with this, neither has the introduction of Advanced Learner Loans with many adults (especially at the current time) worried about taking on what they perceive as debt rather than investment in their future when jobs are at risk and they’ve got bills to pay and families to feed.

Edgy and Agile - Micro-Credentials in Adult Education

Added to the cuts, the lack of flexibility within AEB means that there is increased bureaucracy for colleges and limits to what can be delivered and to whom. If colleges exceed or underdeliver on their allocation by over 3%, then there is no extra funding, or they face clawback. This means that many aim to fill their courses early on in the year leaving little opportunity to respond to tailored training requests at short notice.

Additionally, the inflexibility around taking a second Level 2 or Level 3, where adults might need to move into another sector from one where jobs have been at risk, is not helpful. Neither is the fixation with full qualifications.

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Adults need to be able to access the skills training they need, when they need it in chunks of learning. This is something many countries are ahead of us with - case in point being Finland where they are using micro-credentials in adult education.

Our offer to adults needs to be both edgy and agile. Accessible, demand driven, cutting edge – there for you when you need it, at a time to suit you and fit in with your work and life.

AoC has recently published our REBUILD: A Skills Led Recovery report, outlining where we believe focus needs to lie:

  1. Retain (16-18 year olds),
  2. Relaunch (18-25 year olds – those at risk of youth unemployment or apprenticeships not being available) and
  3. Retrain (support for displaced older adults).

Support for these three groups need to be underpinned by a commitment to resource and a review of funding rules and rates, including those flexibilities that are so badly needed.  

Some immediate ‘wins’ include a commitment to fast track the capital spending for the college rebuild programme starting from 2020/21 and also the Prime Minister’s announcement of an Opportunity Guarantee for traineeships and apprenticeships for young adults although we’re still waiting for a ‘levelling up’ of the catch up commitment that is currently focused on schools and ignores the many learners aged 16-18 in colleges, not least current Year 11s in the transition from school to post-16 provision.

National Skills Fund Public Consultation Could Come Too Late

We continue to make the case for skills training support for adults at risk of redundancy and are suggesting that the planned public consultation on the National Skills Fund in late summer/early Autumn will come too late.

Part of the £3 billion National Skills Fund should be brought forward to fund post-furlough training initiatives for those at risk. The reality is that we need a response that is nationally driven but locally delivered. Now more than ever there is a need for a place-based, joined-up approach to what skills are needed and where jobs are created.

Colleges working as anchor institutions in their local area with businesses, local authorities and other key stakeholders will play a vital role in regional economic and social recovery.

Bringing forward capital and infrastructure programmes including building hospitals and affordable housing will help, as will the move towards green and carbon offsetting funded programmes. Job creation in these areas will support the recovery and sit alongside those key worker sectors which have seen vacancies rise.

Health and care vacancies were already high prior to the pandemic but during the lockdown and as we ease our way out of the crisis many of our member colleges are seeing a demand for courses in these areas such as West Nottinghamshire College Group who shared at a recent AoC policy group meeting that they had seen a significant increase in applications to their Access to HE (nursing) programme. I’m sure they won’t be alone in that increase.

One thing is for sure, we need to move at pace. There are only 8 weeks until the start of September and then the next pressure point of the potential economic abyss at the end of the furlough scheme follows not far behind.

If we do nothing there will be a huge cost to the state as we see more people stay on or move onto benefits when they don’t have the right skills for jobs as they become available. I agree with Ed – inaction costs more than action.

Marguerite Hogg, Policy Development Adviser, Association of Colleges

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