Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:52 pm on 11th February 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley , Barnsley Central 8:52 pm, 11th February 1992

I should like to declare an interest that may be relevant. I am a trustee of Barnsley college educational trust. I shall confine myself to further and not higher education, and I shall deal with the problems in my constituency which for many years has had a low take-up of post-16 education. We are at the bottom of many league tables for such take-up. The local authority tried desperately to remedy the situation, which has a long history. Many years ago, employment in mining was easily available and many 16-year-olds took a job in the industry. That entailed a certain amount of training. There are, of course, other reasons for the low take-up, one of which is a culture bias against further education.

The local education authority rationalised its sixth forms and established a sixth form college. It became a tertiary college with open enrolment to encourage more 16-year-olds to take up further education. The Bill threatens much of what my local authority has been doing for some years and puts at risk the hard work and money that it has invested in the tertiary college. I remind the House that my local authority is 36th out of 36 in allocations of revenue support grant to metropolitan districts. We get the lowest amount, and the effect is especially acute in education. We are now faced with the loss of the tertiary college and, perhaps more importantly, with the loss of any input into the college's future education provision.

The Bill will allow colleges and further education institutions to become corporate institutions funded by the further education funding council. That will cut off any local authority or local government influence. There will be no opportunity for local authorities to pursue further education policies to encourage take-up or to increase take-up, such as is required in my LEA. There will no longer be any LEA governors. Even the minor input to the governing body will be removed from local authorities. That illustrates the Government's opposition to local government influence in any aspect. We have seen attack after attack on local government, and mine has suffered more than most, especially in terms of the grant allocated to it in the past few years.

It seems strange that, while a Bill to restructure and inquire into local government is going through the House, another Bill seeks to remove further education provision from local authorities. The Government could have waited until after the publication of the commission's findings. The commission may well report that it would be better to keep education under the control of local authorities rather than passing it to the further education funding council or to corporate colleges. Those colleges will compete with each other through the provision of courses simply to attract more and more students. Poor take-up or the loss of students to other colleges could lead to college closures.

The director of a college that is the neighbour of a college in my constituency summed it up when he said that he intended to turn Barnsley college into a car park. My town and my local authority could lose a college as a result of the competition engendered by the Bill. How will the people in my area have a choice if our college is closed? How will local needs be addressed if students in my area have to travel many miles to colleges in other towns? Obviously, colleges will have to try to reduce costs and increase the numbers of students if they are to stay in business.

We are also concerned about the removal of accountability. As I have said, colleges will not be able to respond to local needs. There is no way in which people in my constituency could take up any issue or grievance about further education other than through the private college and then, presumably, to the Secretary of State.

Over the years, my local authority has tried desperately to obtain a higher take-up of post-16 education. In Barnsley there have already been clashes between the local college and the local education authority because the college, which is now a private company, has decided to go in the opposite direction to that in which the local authority wished it to go. The courses offered formerly by the college which generated income for the local authority are now being offered through private companies, with the money from those courses going to the college itself as opposed to the education authority. It is that type of control over the content of education provision that is worrying. Courses will probably be offered that do not assist in a local area or are irrelevant to it—that may happen in an area such as mine which is trying to encourage the take-up of post-16 education.

Another big fear of mine concerns charging for further education. That will be particularly unwelcome in an area such as mine which has unemployment of well over 11.5 per cent. Were further education charges to be imposed, they could have a detrimental effect on the people in my area.

The transfer of assets also concerns me. Two colleges are involved—the tertiary college to which I referred and the Northern college. The tertiary college was formed from two town-centre college buildings and a secondary school which was closed to become part of the college. If those facilities were to be transferred to a corporate college, it would result in a substantial loss of facilities for my local education authority, such as sports fields, arts facilities, a theatre and a hall. They would represent a major loss to the local authority and would not be available for the local area. How can the local education authority make anything of its residual power for adult and part-time education if it has no facilities in which to house those assets?

Perhaps the transfer of such assets would be better done by way of a lease so that, should the college fail or should it have to come back into local education authority ownership, the buildings and facilities would still be in the ownership of the authority. That might ensure the continuation of the college.

The assets of any college include its staff. Although there is to be continuation of employment for the lecturers and staff, there seems to be no guarantee of any jobs for the lecturers and teachers once colleges become corporate institutions. What guarantee have the staff of a future within the college structure?

Northern college is in a unique position in that it is funded by local authorities in south Yorkshire, one of them being Barnsley metropolitan district council. The college was established by local education authorities and, were it not for the involvement of those authorities, it would not exist. Other hon. Members have paid tribute to Northern college. It would be a shame if it were put under threat by the Bill.

The college is housed in a stately home owned by Barnsley metropolitan district council. It is surrounded by a considerable acreage of land which includes an ancient monument, Stainborough castle, and other areas of natural beauty which belong to the authority. It bought them in the 1940s and 1950s to house the then Wentworth Castle teacher training college, which later became Northern college. It is inconceivable to me that the Government will remove from my local authority the ownership of the college and the grounds in which it stands. They are a major tourist attraction, apart from being a college and its surroundings, and over the years my local authority has spent a considerable amount on building up the original college and then on providing facilities for Northern college to start up.

Ownership of the facilities should remain with the local education authority, even if Northern college is designated as a relevant college for the purposes of the Act. I hope that in his response the Minister will say what will happen to Northern college under the provisions of the Bill. I should also like him to say whether it will be able to retain the character of its courses—mainly adult education and trade union courses. Although there are one or two colleges like it in other parts of the country, it would be a shame if such courses were to be threatened by the Bill.