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Area reviews not a 'fix-all' solution for further education, warn MPs

16 December 2015

The Public Accounts Committee has warned that 'haphazard' area reviews are not a 'fix-all' solution for the further education sector, and has called on governments to do more to address risk in colleges and ensure stable funding for the sector.

The committee's report on financial sustainability in the further education sector, published today (16 December), also called for a greater focus on the impact of changes on learners. In response, the University and College Union (UCU) said the committee was right to highlight the limited scope of the area reviews and the high level of uncertainty in the sector, and called on the government to focus instead on providing stable public investment for existing colleges.

Today's report coincided with the publication of the skills funding letter for 2016-17, which sets out the budget for further education in the coming years. Although the total funding for the sector is set to increase to £3.4bn by 2019-20, this rise is based largely on the new apprenticeship levy and the expansion of loans in further education. UCU said that expanding loans was a risky strategy and would not help to reverse the steep drop in participation over recent years.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: 'The Public Accounts Committee has shone a light on the high level of uncertainty facing further education at the moment. Too many colleges have been left in financial straits by cuts of almost 40% in the last five years, and area reviews are too limited to provide a coherent answer to the problems facing the sector.

'Over 1 million fewer adults are learning today than in 2010, and we do not believe that expanding loans will reverse this decline. Take-up of loans to date has been patchy at best so this is a risky strategy and we are concerned that more people will be put off from learning by the prospect of taking on debt.

'Instead of haphazard area reviews and more loans in further education, the government should focus on ensuring a sustainable system of public funding which allows colleges and community learning providers to effectively respond to local need and place learners at the heart of their decision making.'

Last updated: 5 January 2016