Previous SectionIndexHome Page


5.51 pm

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I remember his heartfelt contribution to a debate on corporal punishment; as I spent the six years before I became a Member of Parliament as a further education lecturer, my contribution today will be similarly heartfelt.

I and all my former colleagues in further education are a little tired of the sector being called the Cinderella sector, and we should try to move away from that classification. We owe it to all our students and would-be students no longer to use that term; we should value more highly that crucial part of our education system. I had intended to make some comments about the Minister and Prince Charming, but as allegations have been made about Labour Members toadying, I am glad that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough got there first.

Much of what hon. Members say will allude to the comprehensive spending review. That will always be the case with further education, because it has been so poorly funded for so many years. In the review, the Government must deal not only with revenue funding but with the increased capital investment for which further education is crying out.

The university for industry and universal access to all the information on the internet are very well-meaning ideas, but I remember that, in my old college, my department--the department of management and professional studies--had one computer for 26 staff. The ideas are fine, but we need the capital investment if they are not to become totally meaningless.

When we talk about widening participation and encouraging the so-called "Kennedy students" into our colleges, we must consider the extra capital costs of, for example, increasing the number of creches that are available. The creche at my local further education college is booked out the year before people embark on their courses, such is the demand. If we are to encourage people back into education, we must consider the capital investment that is needed.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned the bitter and prolonged dispute between lecturers and employers. I do not think that the previous Government did all they could to bring that to an end. They left it to local colleges to go their own way, but those colleges were more often than not encouraged by the then College Employers Forum to consider the most "productive" use of the lecturers' time.

Lecturers such as myself bitterly resisted the attempt to force us to sign new contracts. No lecturer thinks that the silver book is there for ever, but we were faced with the decision of signing a new contract, and getting a pay

6 Jul 1998 : Column 776

rise for doing so, but knowing that that would lead to a deterioration in the quality of teaching that we could provide.

That dilemma has not yet been fully resolved. I hope that the Select Committee's proposal of an agreed standard contract will help. It will certainly be warmly welcomed by all concerned. I am glad that the Association of Colleges and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education are now talking to each other. That has been a long, long time coming, and it is most welcome.

The previous Government washed their hands of their responsibilities for the governance of further education colleges. We were promised many things from incorporation. As a further education lecturer, I listened to the candidates in the 1992 general election campaign talking about what they thought would happen post-incorporation.

In my college, the two staff governors suddenly found that their places were gone; we never had a student governor; and the LEA representatives disappeared from the governing body. A search and nomination committee was set up with the deliberate intention of recruiting "like-minded individuals" to run the corporation. I warmly welcome the idea of not only allowing but forcing corporations to have staff governors. A community facility cannot be run without stakeholder representatives. Student representation is also vital if we are to have a truly representative board to run a college.

I have been lobbied by the chair and principal of my local college, who seem to think that there is something wrong with having democratically accountable representatives on the board, and prefer the idea of continuing to seek and nominate. They have two staff governors, whom they selected, and two LEA representatives, whom they also interviewed and selected. That is not in the spirit of democratic accountability in which I believe colleges should operate.

On part-time and full-time students and the casualisation of labour, I speak as someone who has managed courses, and I know that it is great to have the flexibility of being able to bring in experts part-time, to do the hours that full-time lecturers may not be able to do, given the increased hours for which they are expected to teach. It is not possible to get all the people together at the same time and in the same place to discuss important quality issues about a course. With the comprehensive spending review in mind, I must say that the rate paid to part-time lecturers sometimes leaves a little to be desired, particularly if we expect them to do preparation and to contribute towards the assessment of students.

I promised to keep my speech short, but there is a lot to be done in further education. Please let us not keep referring to it as a Cinderella; it is not.

5.59 pm

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I am delighted to speak tonight, just as I was to participate in the Select Committee on Education and Employment. I must apologise to the House because I shall have to leave before the debate ends for a service at Guildford cathedral to celebrate 50 years of the national health service. My speech will be somewhat shorter, therefore, than it would otherwise have been, and I know how much that will disappoint other hon. Members.

6 Jul 1998 : Column 777

I do not want to sound a note of controversy, but the previous Government's decision in 1993 to give further education colleges their freedom may, with greater hindsight, come to be seen as almost as significant as the changes to our health system 50 years ago. Colleges of further education are to be the prime avenue for lifelong learning, and all of us share the belief that the development of lifelong learning lies at the heart of any modern society's efforts to improve itself.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) has told us that there were no prizes in further education until now. I am not here to claim prizes for the previous Government, but our debate must remain rooted in reality. We must examine objectively, as the Select Committee did, three vital events. The previous Government's 1993 act of independence for colleges changed their funding, changed their governance and promoted franchising. I am pleased that the Committee's sixth report treats objectively the way in which the subsequent five years treated the colleges in those three areas.

Paragraph 88 of the report states:


The critical point is that a significant one-off efficiency gain has been achieved by that sector, which is a great credit to the sector and to the policy that underpinned the saving. Many more people have gone into further education, and the resulting economies allow the Government to plan for hundreds of thousands more to have the benefit of further education.

It is a measure of the current financial situation that the report proposes an additional £54 million to fund the service provided by the colleges. That is in the context of a budget of £3.1 billion, so it means an increase on current provision of less than 1.5 per cent. There is a further proposal for £60 million--another 1.5 per cent.--for expenditure on capital improvements. We should use those terms to judge whether the service has been overfunded or underfunded.

Ms Hodge: The hon. Gentleman quotes selectively from the report. I am sure that he would share the Select Committee's concern that more than 100 colleges are experiencing severe financial difficulties as a result of previous cuts. Does he agree with the point that he himself made during the Select Committee, that it is easier to find efficiency savings during a period of growth than during a period of standstill? It is the total quantum of £500,000 that will count if we are to see the institutions return to financial health.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for offering to help me to write my speech. There is no dispute between us that a critical juncture has been reached. The process of one-off efficiency gains and convergence has been highly successful, but, as the report suggests, there is a need to change tack. The question is how we do so.

On the question of governance, we were all aware of one or two horror stories when the Committee began to look into the matter. However, the more we looked into it, the more we found that those were isolated cases.

6 Jul 1998 : Column 778

Paragraph 160 of the report quotes from the second report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life--the Nolan committee--as follows:


    "we are dealing with isolated cases . . . that indicate no deep-seated trend. In the circumstances of challenge and change . . . the 'failure rate' has been creditably small."

It is worth bearing in mind the evidence of the Further Education Funding Council that the total losses so far accumulated out of a budget of £3 billion a year for five years are about £9 million to £13 million, which is less than 0.1 per cent. of total expenditure. That is a great credit to the discipline and control that the FEFC has developed.

My final point relates to franchising. There was proper concern at some of the stories that we heard before the Committee got under way. We were worried that qualifications in shelf stacking in supermarkets would be the genre of activity represented by franchising, but that has not happened. Paragraph 129 of the report states:


That is an important finding. The report also discusses time limiting, and the amount of support that should be given to the development of new franchising schemes. On balance, that development was a successful initiative under the previous Government.

Let me look ahead to the future funding of colleges. As with our earlier debate on child support, there is a balance to be struck between fairness and clarity. The FEFC has developed a formula that is complex, but which the colleges understand. It has achieved a high level of convergence. We hear of £2 billion being taken out of the sector, but let us remember that there has been a levelling down of those colleges that overspent or used resources inefficiently, and a levelling up of those colleges that had the lowest level of funding under the previous, local education authority-run system. That progressive change is why many colleges on low levels of funding look forward to further convergence.

I endorse the Committee's finding that convergence is a process in which it is better to travel than to arrive. Working towards convergence has created greater fairness. However, absolute convergence would make the system more complex so that it could deal with individual anomalies at each college. That process would become self-defeating at some point. Convergence within a band is surely the right approach, rather than the reductio ad absurdum of what the FEFC was heading towards previously.

It is instructive to consider convergence in the context of sixth-form colleges and provision in FE colleges. We condone the idea of convergence within a band of plus or minus 2.5 per cent. It is worth putting on the record the fact that table 5 on page xxiv of the report shows clearly that there is convergence of A level funding within a band of 5 per cent regardless of whether a pupil attends a school sixth form, a sixth-form college or a general FE college. While the differences remain significant--I agree that there should be some levelling up--they are not so great as to imply that those who have attended an FE college have been particularly disadvantaged compared with those who have attended a sixth-form college.

One might go even further. It is in the nature of different types of provision for different children that there may be some funding variation. An even more

6 Jul 1998 : Column 779

significant factor is whether the quality and nature of the course is relevant and helpful to a particular pupil. That is a much more important criterion when considering narrow band differences in funding.

That brings me to my next point: whether we should develop a single qualification for those aged 16 to 19. I urge the House to reject that option, as I believe that there is a vocational path. While undertaking the report, the Committee also examined the plight of disaffected children over the age of 14. We found strong evidence for developing a vocational path for those for whom that is suitable not just from 16 but from 14. That would imply a different, but equal, route to qualification that is not inferior to the gold A-level standard, but more vocationally oriented and distinct.

If we are prepared to be rooted in reality and to make those distinctions, we can credibly say that that is the right route for certain children in that age group to follow. They need not feel disadvantaged at the end of that path. In fact, someone who follows a vocational route from 14 or 16 may be far better off economically for at least the next 10 years than those who follow the classic academic university route, given the burden placed on them in the form of the cut in the maintenance grant and the loading of tuition fees.


Next Section

IndexHome Page