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Orders of the Day — Further and Higher Education Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:18 pm on 11th February 1992.

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Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn , Sheffield Central 7:18 pm, 11th February 1992

As all the previous speakers have declared vested interests, I shall do so as well. My constituency contains a polytechnic, part of Sheffield university and two further education colleges.

Many have welcomed the late conversion that has driven the Government to remove the binary divide between polytechnics and universities, and to create a single funding council for higher education. I am now hopeful that the polytechnics will play an important role, along with the universities and the rest of higher education, in developments not just at city but at regional level.

As the speech of the right hon. Member for Shoreham (Sir R. Luce) amply demonstrated, two issues still cause concern—the conditions governing the grants referred to in clause 68, and academic freedom. I hope that the Minister will deal with both. Recently, the polytechnic and the university in Sheffield have entered into a strong working partnership with the city as a whole, and that has had a regional impact as well. I believe that the economic regeneration now taking place in the area has been helped by the close working relationship of what are now the two local institutions of higher education, and by the development of technology transfer and science parks.

Further education is a subject of considerable contention. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has pointed out, we have removed one impediment—the divide between polytechnics and universities—only to institute two new boundaries which may be equally damaging, if not more so. To suggest that the recent release of polytechnics from local authority financial control should be extended to the further education sector is, in my view, to advance a dangerous and, indeed, ignorant argument. It may, of course, have been the only argument available to the Government— albeit a weak one—when they were trying to cover up the fact that they had taken more than £2 billion from local authorities' further education budgets. As my hon. Friends have revealed, that took place during the panic about the poll tax calculations. It is all very well for the Minister to shake his head, but that is the truth, and I think that most people outside know that it is.

The Government have made their calculations for a change in the funding of at least 500 further education colleges at a time when we have only a handful of polytechnics. It shows ignorance for the Government to claim that the role of polytechnics is the same as that of further education colleges, for that is entirely untrue.

I am a product of a further education college. Having left school at 15, I served an apprenticeship in one of Sheffield's major steelworks and then, thankfully, attended the further education college. I sat on the board of governors of two such colleges for some time. I also attended Sheffield polytechnic, and I know that they are entirely different institutions, fulfilling different needs. Further education provides for local needs, and to break up the system now would be highly detrimental to the recovery that we look for in the United Kingdom.

On the board of governors were local industrialists and local trade unionists; there was also a major input from the local authority. It is no good for the Government to ask for economic regeneration and to expect a partnership to develop across the major conurbations, and then to think that some elements can be isolated—elements such as the further education colleges, which are an integral part of the training mechanism.

If we are to start upgrading schools—you will understand this, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a former engineer— we must not do it in an offhand way or at arm's length. It is important to understand the role of the further education colleges, which is quite distinct from that of the polytechnics. They serve national, international and regional needs. People across the political and industrial spectrums are concerned about the direction in which the Government are pushing further education colleges.

It was interesting to note the concern expressed by Conservative Members about the community colleges. It highlighted the need for flexibility in the development of that sector of education for the over-16s, along with the need for security of funding. Security of funding must involve democratic accountability, and that, surely, must be obtained through elected bodies—local authorities.

One of our main criticisms of the further education provisions in the Bill is that they will not achieve the stated objective of a significant increase in the number of people entering higher education, or continuing in full-time education between the ages of 16 and 18. Furthermore, it is bizarre and wrong to exclude local education authorities from strategic decision making in respect of post-16 education and training. That will open unnecessary divisions between the school and college sectors.

It is incomprehensible that local authorities, which are frequently the largest employers in an area or city, should be excluded from governing bodies. It is wrong to say that the governing bodies can contain employers, but that local authorities cannot represent their employees on those bodies. The time scale is rushed, and is likely to cause major implementation problems. The distinction, for funding purposes, between vocational and non-vocational education is artificial—as was adequately demonstrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn—and is likely to prejudice the hundreds of thousands of students who participate in non-vocational education.

The Government are wholly silent about the nature of funding mechanisms, and the Department has failed to respond to any of the detailed questions put to it by local education authorities. That has been reflected by what Conservative Members have said. The further education clauses of the Bill are being pushed through in the teeth of widespread public disquiet and opposition—witness an earlier question about responses to the White Paper. Those responses have not been published, although I understand that they have been asked for on a number of occasions both here and in the other place.