I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue. Most hon. Members probably attended a further education or sixth form college, or a sixth form in a school. As most of us have benefited from further education, it is only right, fair and proper that we should take an interest in the sector when it faces such difficulties.
Further education colleges play a vital role as centres of opportunity and learning. They add social and economic value to their communities. The 357 colleges in England and Wales educate more than 3 million students. I make no apologies for the remarks that I shall make on the situation in east Lancashire. I have received much correspondence, both from the college in my constituency and from those in neighbouring constituencies.
The crisis in further education adversely affects its students, lecturers and institutions. From the point of view of staff, incorporation has been nothing less than a disaster. It has led to worsening conditions of service and many redundancies. My local college, Accrington and Rossendale, is due to have its inspection report published early next month. Early signs are that it will get a good report, with staff awarded the highest praise and marks possible. Their reward will be further undermining, underfunding and redundancies. Across the sector, more than 10,000 jobs have been lost since incorporation in 1993.
There is a damaging dispute at my local college. It centres on the case of Mr. Pat Walsh, the senior union official in the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. He claims that he was sacked by the college because of his trade union activities. The college governing body claims that he was genuinely made redundant. NATFHE is balloting tomorrow for strike action. If it goes ahead, it will be at a damaging time for students in the run-up to public examinations. All that one can say with certainty about this fiasco is that, whatever the failings of the previous system—and there were failings—such disasters did not happen before the incorporation of colleges.
Some people in my constituency want to blame the governing body for the appalling state of affairs. I reject that. I want to lay the blame fairly and squarely where it belongs: at the door of the Minister, the Government and the Further Education Funding Council, which has created a severely flawed funding mechanism for colleges.