College Funding Debate

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Robert Halfon

Main Page: Robert Halfon (Conservative) - Harlow)

College Funding

Robert Halfon Excerpts
Monday 21st January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Sir Charles Walker Portrait Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair) - Hansard

A huge number of Members are seeking to catch my eye. If every speaker sticks to six minutes for their speech, they should all get in.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 4:58 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I welcome the Minister, who is my successor in the role. I know that she has a passion for further education.

We know that FE is vital for our economy. Done well, it can tackle three huge deficits: our skills deficit, our social justice deficit and our social capital deficit. Our colleges are vital assets. They are institutes that should be at the heart of every community. Although we are talking about funding today, I will take this chance to praise my local college, Harlow College, which is one of the finest colleges in the country. It has had a significant amount of funds to develop an advanced manufacturing centre, a new maths school and an aircraft college at Stansted airport, one of the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. I know that some funds are coming to our colleges, and that is one reason why I have visited Harlow College more than 65 times since I became a Member of Parliament. Nevertheless, the chasm in funding for education either side of a student’s 16th birthday has now widened to 24%.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has given FE the dubious accolade of “biggest loser” in education, noting that it is the only area to fall in real terms, year on year, for more than 10 years. By 2020, we will be spending the same amount in real terms on educating and training 16 to 18-year-olds as we were in 1990. People might be forgiven for thinking that that is an accidental failure of policy making; the truth is that it is much worse. On 31 January 2017, the Minister for Schools told the Education Committee that in 2010 the Government decided to prioritise spending on five to 16-year-olds—on the grounds that it had a more demonstrable impact on life chances—than on post-16 education, when presumably it would be “too late”. But people develop at different points on the education ladder of opportunity and, for some, FE can be the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con) - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 4 p.m.

A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice showed that only 15% of people in the UK who start work at entry level will ever rise above that level, and that is one of the lowest percentages in the developed world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that colleges such the excellent Waltham Forest College are key if people are to upskill and change skills, and that we should not, therefore, write people off at the age of 16, 17 or 18, or even 35 or 40? Colleges such as the ones that he and I have mentioned are in a real position to help people to achieve that, and therefore, in some senses, they are more important even than universities.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 5:01 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Colleges are very important for social justice because they help to give people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance to climb the education ladder of opportunity, even though we know that life chances are largely influenced during the time before a child starts school. The Education Committee, which I chair, will soon be producing a report on that subject.

FE colleges are the economic trampoline that our country badly needs. With one in 10 degrees now achieved in colleges, there is huge potential for FE to drive the revolution in degree apprenticeships that the Education Committee called for in our recent report on value for money in higher education. The introduction of T-levels is a good sign that the Government are getting behind FE rather than perpetuating its status as a poor relation of secondary and higher education, but the excellent investment in T-levels is not the same as core investment in FE. The £500 million provided for T-levels is additional funding for a new initiative. T-levels are of a scale and seriousness far beyond those of the relatively small-scale targeted funds, which are eye-catching in a Budget but will not lead to lasting long-term change.

Before embarking on costly new projects, such as national colleges and institutes of technology, the Government need to consider whether existing providers could deliver their policy objectives. We often announce new initiatives when we should really bring together and strengthen what we already have. On 10 October last year, as part of the “Love Our Colleges” campaign, we held a special session with the Association of Colleges, the National Union of Students and the Sixth Form Colleges Association. James Kewin from the SFCA told us:

“Too much of what we see in 16 to 19 now starts with the press release and works back...policy by press release is quite damaging and the much more mundane reality is we just need a higher rate of funding.”

That is exactly what the Education Committee wants to see, and it is why last April we launched our inquiry into school and college funding to examine where the truth lay in the polarised debate between those who say that education funding has been subject to swingeing cuts and those who claim it has gone up in recent years. Yes, our colleges need more money—starting with the core funding rate of £4,000 per student—but it is even more important that the Department for Education comes up with a long-term strategy for schools and colleges. If the NHS can have a 10-year plan and £20 billion extra, why can education and our colleges not have a 10-year plan and the money they need?

In the written evidence to our inquiry, the real-terms reduction in post-16 funding was deemed to be inexplicable after the raising of the participation age to 18, especially when one accounted for the fact that, as has been highlighted, the cost of providing education—particularly technical education—between the ages of 16 and 18 is higher. That is evidenced by the fact that charges for post-16 education in the independent sector have gone up rather than down.

In truth, changing all that will involve self-restraint on the part of policy makers and Ministers. We will need to resist the temptation to tweak and fiddle. We will need to focus on the outcomes that we want in 10 to 20 years’ time, not on what might be attractive over a shorter timetable. Yes, the Committee is hearing evidence that is critical of the Government’s approach, but we are trying to help the Minister and to be as supportive as we can of the Department as it enters into negotiations with the Treasury for the next spending review period. A Select Committee trying to help the Department it oversees is certainly swimming against the tide, but I hope that our report will lead to much more investment in FE colleges and a new, long-term approach. For too long, FE has been called the Cinderella of education, but we should remember that Cinderella became a member of the royal family, and she did not crash the carriage. We need to banish the ugly sisters of snobbery and underfunding.

Laura Smith (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab) Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 5:06 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and to take part in this incredibly important debate on further education funding. It is obvious that the matter is of great importance to my constituency, as we were one of the top 10 constituencies in terms of responses to the petition.

In my constituency we are lucky to have two sixth form colleges in Nantwich—Brine Leas and Malbank—and we are extremely lucky to have the college I attended in Crewe. The college has changed dramatically since I was there. Not only has it changed its name to Cheshire College South and West, but the building underwent an incredible transformation during the last Labour Government and we are now proud to have a modern facility with fantastic resources, unlike the creaky 1960s tower block I enrolled at.

Cheshire College South and West provides a variety of courses, boasts its very own award-winning student-run restaurant called “Academy”, and has a hair salon, a theatre and an incredible fitness centre. The college sits in a residential area of Crewe, which is a post-industrial town that suffers from high levels of poverty, with people trapped in work that simply does not pay. The college provides opportunities to many local schoolchildren and to the community in general, offering space for community groups, meeting rooms for businesses and experiences that people otherwise simply would not have.

It sounds too good to be true. There always is a “but” with these things, and the big “but” is exactly the reason we are here today: Cheshire College South and West faces huge funding challenges. I am here to highlight that and to make the Minister aware of how devastating it would be to my community to lose that excellent education provision. Sadly, we are already seeing the university I attended, Manchester Metropolitan, withdraw its university campus from Crewe; that is a huge blow. We cannot allow FE opportunities to shrink for my constituents as well.

A key point that really illustrates the funding pressures in FE is that in real terms, funding for 16 to 18-year-olds is back to its 1990 level. To put that into context, I was five years old in that year, Margaret Thatcher resigned and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. How can it be that 29 years later funding has gone so far backwards? I have been informed that while costs continue to increase, our college will face considerable funding pressures next year, causing a potential negative impact of more than £1 million. The college will undoubtedly make cuts, and we all know that cuts come in the form of jobs. That will be devastating not only for those who are dedicated to teaching, but for the opportunities available to our future generations, not to mention the impact on our local economy.

It is important also to make it clear that pay is a major issue both for staff and for the colleges for which they work. Two thirds of college leaders cite an inability to match pay expectations as a major barrier to recruiting skilled staff.

Break in Debate

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy - Hansard
21 Jan 2019, 6:37 p.m.

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that has declined. I know that because after giving birth, a friend of mine wanted a reason to get out of the house and not have the baby with her for a while, so she managed to sign me and herself up for salsa classes. I was quite disappointed because I was taller and had to be the bloke, so now I can salsa but only if I take the male role in the pair. This was something that my friend did after giving birth, when she wanted to get out of the house and find something else to do. I fear we are losing that role for colleges.

I return to the point about the NHS and the skills shortage. The 10-year plan for the NHS is welcome, but in a report the director of the Royal College of Nursing said:

“This report confirms our greatest fear – that the impressive ambition of the long term plan could be derailed, simply because we do not have the nursing staff to deliver it.”

The Minister might be expecting me to plug the fact that Hull College has set up a nursing apprenticeship, which I think is really exciting. In a different debate at a different time, with pretty much the same Members, I spoke about the need for progression from level 2 to a degree apprenticeship to be clearly defined and mapped out, so that each individual can see how one moves on to another. That is exactly what has been done at Hull College, which has taken people at 16 years old from a level 2 qualification in health and social care and given them a pathway right through to a nursing degree apprenticeship. I have mentioned to the Minister before that we need to have a clear pathway and progression mapped out, from levels 2, 3 and 4 all the way up.

The Education Committee visited Germany to look at lifelong learning. Quite a few people have mentioned the challenges of automation—it is both a challenge and something to be excited about—that present problems around lifelong learning and how to upskill people in this country. In Germany, they are already starting to do that in a programme called Industry 4.0, which is happening across the country. I feel as though we are already quite far behind, and they have moved on with this. We do not want to be a country that is left even further behind, especially after Brexit.

Robert Halfon Portrait Robert Halfon - Hansard

The hon. Lady and I work together on the Select Committee. She is making one of the best speeches of the afternoon, particularly when it comes to the importance of FE as social capital. When FE colleges in areas that have very little economic capital are weakened, the community is destroyed. What she says about Germany is incredibly important. She will know that 50% of German students go on to do further or technical education, as do 70% of Swiss students, because we went to both those places. Those countries have Governments that are investing in FE and giving it equality with academic education, and we should closely follow their example.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy - Hansard

It will be no surprise to the right hon. Gentleman that I completely agree with him, and I share his passion for that. In a previous debate on the subject, I made the point that if we want such parity of esteem, we need parity of outcome. Germany’s model has no dead ends. If someone starts on a vocational route, they can move across, between vocational and academic, and back. They can get to degree level through a vocational route, if they want to. That is why I feel as though T-levels are a distraction, as I have mentioned to the Minister before. That is, unfortunately, where we disagree.

To conclude, of course I support “Raise the Rate”. It is crucial that we have more money for our pupils. I am proud that the Labour party has an inspiring national education service vision for everyone to get behind. I put on record my thanks to all the staff at Hull College and at Wyke Sixth Form College—which is where I went, so I especially like that one—for all their hard work and for everything they do for all the pupils in Hull. I implore the Minister to consider that skills, progression and future matter, but so do a sense of belonging and a sense of community; those are the other things that FE provides.