If there was any genuine hope that 2021 would be calmer than 2020, that hope was quickly extinguished in the first week of January with the further lockdown announced by the Government. There is, however, plenty to look forward to this year and for the FE and HE sectors to be aware of.
The long awaited FE White Paper
From an FE perspective, the sector awaits with bated breath the much delayed FE White Paper. The embattled Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, has described an "exciting and bold" proposal to "put employers at the heart of the system", reflecting the "changing need" of employers and "rebalancing academic and technical education". Williamson also used his speech at the AoC FE summit in November 2020 to say that he "wants the sector to reach its potential". Whilst we can all agree these are all fine sentiments, the devil will be in the detail and we await to see how Williamson and the Government intend to achieve all of this.
In particular, one wonders to what extent the White Paper will reflect the Commission on the College of the Future, which recommended in its report last autumn that networks of colleges be set up with strategies to meet each geographical area’s skills priorities, based on employer need, with input from local Government. It also recommended a single post-16 education oversight and funding body, merging the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the Office for Students’ responsibilities in this area.
Funding for adult education
One thing that will be happening in FE this year is that, from April 2021, the Government will be funding technical courses for adults, at the equivalent of A-level, where individuals have not already got equivalent qualifications. The "Lifetime Skills Guarantee" can be seen as part of the Government's "levelling up" agenda and it will be plenty more of this and other ideas that those in the FE sector will be looking out for from the White Paper when it eventually arrives.
Inevitably the pandemic has brought a raft of challenges for both the FE and HE sectors, not least from a financial perspective. These challenges are unlikely to ease in 2021. In particular, the cost of the pandemic will continue to be felt by institutions, either directly or indirectly, in responding to the pandemic and the impact on income.
Whilst it is unlikely that the pandemic will, of itself, make many institutions unviable, for those institutions that had existing financial challenges it is certainly not going to help them. We have already seen institutions needing to make cost savings and/or undertake staffing restructures, either through voluntary redundancies or, in a worst case scenario, compulsory redundancies. There may ultimately be institutions looking for a rescue through a merger, or some other means of continuing their provision through an alternative structure.
The pandemic also brought plenty of challenges for institutions' HR teams. Who, for example, could have told you what "furlough" was in February 2020? This year new legislation can be anticipated, with an Employment Bill expected to be published in the spring. That is expected to pull together a variety of recent announcements on carers' leave, enhanced redundancy protection for pregnant employees and the possibility of a single labour market enforcement body. The most contentious new provision may be the right for zero hours employees to request a "stable" contract after 26 weeks' service. This was subject to consultation back in 2019 and no response has yet been published by the Government. However, given the number of institutions across the sector that use some form of zero hours contract, for either teaching or support staff, whether this is enacted and how it is intended to work in practice will be of real interest in due course.
Brexit and beyond
No forward look in recent years has been complete without the mention of the word “Brexit”, and even though the UK formally left the EU at the end of January 2020, and the transition period ended on 31 December 2020, the effects are likely still to be felt across the economy for months and years to come. For those institutions undergoing, or about to undergo construction projects, the impact of changes to the immigration regime (possibly creating labour shortages) and increased bureaucracy in the supply chain (resulting in price rises) is likely to be felt sooner or later. The construction sector will also be looking towards a greener future, as the UK aims for a net zero carbon target in 2050. How quickly contractors adapt will depend on the incentives Government – or other project commissioners - are prepared to offer.
Whilst we’re locked down (again) at the beginning of 2021 it can be difficult to look too far ahead, but FE and HE institutions will want to keep preparing for better days. They will arrive soon.
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