Mahmoona Shah, FE College Teacher

Further education policy has historically been a confused and contradictory patchwork of different initiatives and programmes. There has been an indifference to the needs of those who have not been served well in an education system otherwise shaped and dominated by elites. Its neglect is also evident in the paucity of literature on the sector, most of which focuses on schools and higher education with further education relatively absent from view. A recent comment by a national newspaper editor echoes Professor Alison Wolf’s findings that further education is often dismissed as a route only ‘for other people’s children’. Coalition initiatives, including FE loans, budget cuts, the deregulation of teacher training, and marketization, will only serve to reinforce this Cinderella image of the sector, compounding the problems it faces in trying to serve the needs of more disadvantaged groups in society. 

What is further education for?

FE is characterised by a broad range of provision and types of provider. The sector’s coverage includes A Levels, vocational and skills training, adult and community education, and higher education. More than other parts of education, its role is defined in the language of business. Implicit in this view of further education as a market and the learner as a consumer is the assumption that education is a commodity to be bought and sold.

It is important to note this ideological, political and economic context because capitalism itself has become a threat to democratic societies through the inequality that is an inevitable outcome of the neo-liberal policies now pursued by governments. Furthermore, increasing levels of inequality are likely to lead to social upheaval, unless action is taken. In the context of this sort of political economy, expecting the further education sector to ‘deliver more for less’ is exposed as a wholly unrealistic objective. Nor could there be the possibility of more collaborative, participatory approaches in further education without a participatory approach to the workforce in contrast to the aggressive managerialism of business-oriented FE funding cuts.

What is ignored is the role of further education in empowering individuals and communities by enabling them to overcome disadvantages through participation and critical engagement across a range of courses which might have no obvious immediate economic benefit. 

As Chandola and Jenkins argue, “a case can be made for subsidising non-qualification-bearing courses, given the economic, social and health benefits which adult education can confer”. However, the government is doing its best, through the introduction of FE loans to extend the commercialisation of further education, and ensure that the most disadvantaged will find it harder to access a wide range of learning opportunities.

With the sector already reeling from a 25% cut to its budget, a 17.5% cut in funding for 18 year olds has drawn sector-wide criticism for its disproportionate impact on students in further education, particularly black and minority ethnic groups.

But there is divisiveness in the way cuts are being applied to the education sector, with the justification presented as a simple choice: for example, it’s either cuts to the adult budget for education, or the Student Opportunity Fund (though, of course, Russell Group universities are also contemplating a reduction in the latter to protect research funding). In any case, the outcome is cuts falling disproportionately on the already worse off and less privileged, closing off avenues of opportunity and damaging the life chances of young people and adults for years to come.

The funding cuts are also paving the way towards widening the implementation of loans across the sector – already in place since 2013 for those aged 24+. On this front, the Coalition should draw on lessons from their experience with apprenticeship loans. Many of those choosing FE do so because their needs have not been fully met by the school curriculum so penalising them in this way compounds their structured inability to overcome the multiple disadvantages they face.

There is also a degree of media complicity in underreporting the damaging effects of an instrumentalist hyper-accountability policy agenda indifferent to the needs of specific groups in society, and played out by target-obsessed managerialist employers.  Many people speak of the ‘snobbery’ implicit in government policy towards vocational subjects as inferior to the more economically valuable academic subjects, and the media does little to challenge this bias, not least because of its domination by journalists from private school backgrounds.

Casualistion and fragmentation of the workforce

The reach of market ideology throughout the education sector became well established in further education post 1992 incorporation, and successive governments have continued to subject the sector to market forces, promoting competition between providers, in funding mechanisms, the deregulation of teacher training, the encouragement of a managerialist class aping private sector practices, and the erosion of professional status through the fragmentation of the workforce (see, Lucas, 2004 for discussion of the impact of changes after 1992). The latter is one of the most obvious manifestations of the market in further education.

The introduction of assessor and trainer grades and ballooning levels of casualisation post incorporation had the effect of undermining and weakening the position of the labour force in further education,encouraging de-skilling and the erosion of terms and conditions (2). We are seeing parallels in the schools sector with recent attempts to impose casualised working conditions.

The Lingfield Review admitted that historically the pay of FE professionals was between that of school teachers and higher education teaching professionals, but after marketisation, and especially since 2001, it has fallen behind that of school teachers. In the past 5 years alone FE lecturer pay has fallen 15% in real terms. Of course, the pay and terms and conditions of those on casual contracts are far worse, given the pressure to meet the varied demands of workloads within an hourly pay rate. It is not uncommon to hear the words “less than minimum wage” being used by hourly paid lecturers to describe their pay, or for individuals to express their dismay on realising they had been employed on a zero hours contract.

Employers claim that flexibility enables them to respond more effectively to the vagaries of the market in which numbers are difficult to predict given frequent changes in funding mechanisms as well as the funding value of qualifications.  However, the evidence suggests that: “There is no excuse for only offering such contracts other than managerial incompetence and a willingness to pass on risk to those least likely to be able to cope with it in the work force.”

In the FE & Skills sector, the ’least able to cope’ means women who comprise the majority of the 60% who are casualised. This is in effect a form of subsidy for employers, with women performing low wage (and increasingly unskilled given the sector wide trend towards deregulation and unqualified teachers) work expected to be supported by families or partners.

A recent report found that the two thirds of colleges use zero hours contracts. It is difficult to explain away the long term, widespread and endemic use of casual staff to deliver core work as the need to ‘manage flexibility’. A more likely explanation for the use of zero hours contracts in further education is the creation of a sub-class of worker, difficult to identify, organise, unionise and claim employment rights. Why else do employers feel the need to subject hourly paid staff to probation periods, as long as nine months in the case of one employer?

In effect, the sum of these measures has been to weaken the ability of further education professionals to organise and respond effectively to sustained attacks on their terms and conditions and maintain a strong sense of professionalism. Sector professionals are of the view that, post-marketisation, terms and conditions are the worst they have ever experienced

On a wider level, it is difficult for an unqualified, overworked and low wage workforce to organise both itself and students to challenge the injustices and inequalities that are a feature of our political economy.

The Coalition’s aims and objectives for the further education sector are a continuation of the marketisation and commodification trend begun by the previous Conservative administration and embedded by New Labour. Funding cuts, fragmentation, deregulation and the promotion of competition weaken the ability of the sector to reframe its purposes and respond to urgent issues of social justice and equality.

The casualisation of the labour force in particular contributes to the polarisation of the labour market into a two-tier workforce of low paid, insecure work. Combined with compositional changes in the labour market, and the increase in low wage work, the implications of neglecting further education through funding cuts and abandoning it to the vagaries of the market will be devastating.

It is a situation from which some will find it very difficult to recover and progress economically, but it also damages society’s attempts to address growing levels of inequality.  And in their aversion to reporting the educational injustices practised upon ‘other people’s children’, the media should hang their heads in shame alongside policy makers.

Mahmoona Shah teaches at a large further education college and represents casualised members on the UCU Anti-Casualisation Committee and National Executive Committee. She previously worked in policy the voluntary sector.