What will Augar's Review mean for Further Education?

Posted by Phil Moseley

The Augar Review has been a welcome voice in the FE space. More funding in the sector might seem like the fairy dust needed to solve FE's current issues, but colleges should tread with caution. We talk to Tribal FE Consultant, Philip Moseley about what he thinks the Augar Review means for FE.

Phil, tell me what you know about the Augar review:

In terms of further education, it's been well received. The review finally documents and creates a platform for a well evidenced issue across FE and its significant lack of funding. To finally have this voiced with recommendations has been welcomed.

Let's remember, education is only around 4% of Britain's GDP … it's undervalued, no more so than in FE, so there needs to be a rebalance in funding. We shouldn’t be taking money from HE to give to FE. Augar has explained and researched this story and puts his narrative right under the Government's nose.

What do you think needs to happen in FE as a result of the review?

The review only makes recommendations, so regardless of whether the recommendations are taken on board or not, colleges still need to act.

There is a need for the sector to collaborate more. To get the best for the sector, colleges need to work with each other a lot better. Informal conversations might happen, colleges may be sharing services but ideally colleges should be encouraged to share performance information to ensure mutually beneficial best practise. They should be truly honest with each other about their challenges and together, create stronger regionalised offers.

The review is fairly ambiguous when it talks of 'further rationalisation' being required. Hopefully this means a recommendation for colleges to come together to provide more regional agreements - rather than chopping the number of providers (basically a repeat of the recent 16 - 19 review).

What do you think this means to colleges that are struggling?

Whilst the recommendations will undoubtedly help struggling colleges get back on their feet, the recommendations aren't a magic wand. There will be some hard graft ahead. It may well be 2022 or 2023 (or longer) before any recommended changes potentially get implemented - and who knows where we will be politically by then.

For those poorer performing colleges, there's no doubt they will need to continue to work hard to address the challenges that aren't going to magically disappear. Even if extra funding is allocated to the sector, the gap between what colleges are likely to be getting and what they need to flourish, may still be tight. Colleges should be asking, 'will that be enough money to allow us to meet our needs, or to properly plan and invest going forward?'. Any increase in money isn’t going to alleviate these problems (inflation, depreciation, rising pensions), these are challenges that are going to remain, but extra funding and more flexibility in the regulatory process should hopefully provide colleges the foundation to help remedy some other challenges that they have greater control over (e.g. staff pay) and possibly help colleges soften the impact of these much more significant challenges.

Basically, colleges will be able to get their foundations right, but no one is going to hand them a fairy-tale castle overnight.

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What do you think this means to colleges that are in a good position already?

The challenges are sector wide. Colleges rated as Ofsted Outstanding or Good, with strong financial health, still have to face the same challenges. Often colleges have had to rely on cash reserves to help them get by, but they still have to try and address the issue around rising costs and rising expectations.

There's a dual mandate. You have got to deliver student output, engage really well with employers whilst also being massively efficient… that's difficult no matter where your starting point is.

The Augar recommendations may shine a spotlight on colleges, requiring them to be even more accountable for their success. Government will have an expectation that by injecting cash into the sector, delivery will be smoother, outcomes will be better and there will be more evidenced 'value' for Government's money.

Any colleges that are already strong should use the review and potential investment as a way of solidifying their strengths.

What do colleges need to do / start thinking about in the short, medium and long term?

In the short term, colleges need to address three main areas:

  • Driving greater collaboration
  • Continuing to address their challenges until the recommendations come in
  • To position themselves in a way that provides a stronger, more cohesive story about the performance of the sector

It's usually an outside view that comments on how the sector looks, how the sector performs etc., but colleges should be on the front foot and take ownership of this by beginning to strike better collaboration with each other.

In the medium term, colleges need to think about their economic value position. How their offer best meets the needs of the students, the college, the community and employers. The challenges of predicting going forward (i.e. funding being based on past performance) is likely to remain. Colleges need to take steps to use a better predictive model in terms of informing budgets. Asking themselves 'do we have the foresight to predict what's likely to happen?' colleges should be in a better position to test their agility when it comes to:

  • Change in student numbers
  • Change in government agenda (T-levels? apprenticeships)
  • Change to employer needs
  • Rising costs

In the long term the goal has to be to drive efficiency and future proof their digital landscape.

What would be the one piece of advice you would give to a college thinking about the impact of this review and how they might benefit from it?

My advice would be to act with caution. Embrace the changes if they happen (and let’s hope they do!) as this should finally begin to help address the funding issue the FE sector has borne witness to for so long, as well as hopefully provide opportunity for greater flexibility to the regulations with which colleges have to work within.

There appears to be plenty of opportunity within the recommendations for colleges to be pleased, but I would suggest that an approach mindful of the repercussions of perceived wealth gain might bring. There is a big gap for many colleges in terms of where they are and where they want to be, and although the additional funding (amongst other recommendations) might help address that, there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of ensuring the fabric of learning is well maintained, educators are well remunerated and the sector is moving towards greater fiscal sustainability. Colleges should be mindful to not over-stretch and keep the concept of value and efficiency alongside their own educational principles to ensure a sustainable delivery of the dual mandate.

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