Further Education (FE), which is a resource primarily used by working class and low income people, has had a 35% funding cut since 2009. This has led to around 1 million fewer adult learners studying in FE.
The official government position is all about “readying Britain for the high-tech future” but its policies are in reality running down the colleges necessary to do that.
Whatever the outcome of technological change in the workplace, shutting down whole departments and making access more difficult is not “readying” anyone for anything.
The 2008 recession did not see a massive rise in unemployment but instead an increase in people working in insecure part time and short term work, often for multiple employers at once, and a squeeze on pay and conditions. People on benefits are being bullied and berated into work but are simultaneously being denied access to vocational training.
Many courses now charge high fees, for example the most popular construction qualifications cost over £1,000. The government response when FE teachers lobbied Parliament saying that students could not afford these fees was to say that students could take out career development loans. The nursing bursary, which opened up this career for so many people, has now ended, despite NHS staff reporting a shortage of nurses.
The cuts to funding mean a lack of crèche places along with other forms of support that students need, such as support for students with disabilities. Services offering advice and advocacy for problems with benefits and housing have been cut exactly when these issues have got much worse. The government is forcing through a programme of college mergers which means job cuts, longer distances to travel and a reduced range of courses.
People who need help with basic literacy or maths may need years of study before they can even start a vocational course but students have less and less time to be able to access this vital education. Students who are on JSA are pushed around and made to attend constant interviews and are often not allowed to finish their courses. The number of unemployed people who are studying in FE is falling while students who are working are charged high fees for many courses, even students on very low incomes, and struggle to keep up with their studies.
People are being forced off benefits and bombarded with a constant stream of “no jobs for life” demands to improve your skills, get into work, get qualified, but this is being made harder and harder for them to do. The benefit system is set up to get people into a job, any job, it doesn’t matter about long term gaining skills or useful experience or viability of the job as long as that person can be ticked off on the “job” target. This means more and more people are pushed into the already crowded ‘unskilled’ job market, while average rents for those on lowest incomes have risen 45% between 2010-16, so making ends meet is getting close to impossible.
FE has been the pathway for so many people, not just to better paid work but to education in the wider sense. Learning to read and write or use a computer is not only about “getting into work” but is an essential empowerment which must be defended for everyone. Some basic skills courses are now not accessible to people who are above retirement age, even though old people learning to read and write or speak English is a joyful thing to see.
FE previously offered a huge variety of courses, ranging from dollhouse making or pastry cookery to foreign languages, which people could study just for enjoyment. Now anything that can’t be justified as employability is either closed or only offered at prohibitively high fees. Whether it is learning to read, getting a vocational qualification or learning a musical instrument, being able to study and access classes is essential to people getting the most out of life. It is also a place people can learn skills and confidence for defending themselves against employers and landlords and to come together with other people.
This article first appeared in the Summer edition of Freedom Journal