Sleet and snow, formed the seasonal backdrop for this year’s AoC Winter Finance Conference. 40 delegates triumphed over difficult conditions to make it to London – and they were glad they did. As ever, the winter conference, timed for just after the Budget, was enormously informative.
The prevailing mood amongst the assembled finance professionals was one of “business as usual”. Julian Gravatt, the AoC’s Deputy Chief Executive (Policy, Curriculum and Funding) suggested that 2018/19 might be a “relatively quiet year for colleges”, and he could well be right.
Apprenticeships continue to prove challenging, and T-Levels are coming; but, compared to recent years, 2018/19 looks set to be free from major sector-wide upheaval. In the aftermath of Area Reviews and a November Budget which was notable for its lack of dramatic announcements, colleges are taking stock. In the context of the Winter Finance Conference, this means taking steps to improve financial health.
"2018/19 looks set to be free from major sector-wide upheaval"
A falling student cohort and banks who are increasingly viewing colleges as “too risky” means that colleges are working to improve their financial health, and in doing so steer clear of early intervention from the FE Commissioner (not to mention the insolvency regime!) We are busy working with colleges who are new to Tribal Benchmarking or who are returning to the service after some time away. Free from Area Review intervention, colleges are taking steps to make sure their future is assured. Some of the issues highlighted by Julian Gravatt are out of the hands of colleges, such as the Brexit fall-out and uncertainty around funding reforms, but others such as rising staff costs and competition for students are areas where colleges are reacting. Reviewing resource allocation is commonplace amongst the colleges we work with, and we are seeing higher demands for analyses of value for money across colleges’ functions. Naturally, this is in part to identify savings, but it is also to improve the value for money areas such as admissions can deliver. Equally, colleges are keen to identify functions requiring investment in order to successfully compete with other colleges.
At the conference, there was some frustration evident as apprenticeships came under the microscope. Falling numbers of apprenticeship starts - perhaps an unintended consequence of the Apprenticeship Levy – and numerous other issues were discussed. Unfortunately, there were no immediate answers – Keith Smith, ESFA’s Director of Funding and Programmes, was unable to make it to the conference through the snow. A shame as there were lots of questions that deserved a response.
"We are seeing higher demands for analyses of value for money across colleges’ functions"
Aside from financial issues, GDPR and cyber security were very much on the agenda. Data security is clearly paramount, but with large fines for GDPR breaches, and cyber insurance increasingly essential, delegates were fully engaged.
It was great to talk to lots of college finance professionals about the challenges they are facing and the solutions they’re finding. The commitment and drive of people who work in colleges are what keeps colleges going. I hope, for them, 2018/19 is a relatively quiet year.
To hear how Tribal Benchmarking is helping colleges take stock and improve their financial performance, join our webinar on 24th January:
"Improving financial performance and value for money across your college functions."