Further Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:10 am on 19th February 1997.

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Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice , Pendle 10:10 am, 19th February 1997

The speech that we have just heard scores one out of 10 for content. It was pathetic and ill informed. I shall address the subject on the Order Paper: the crisis in further education.

In my constituency, Nelson and Colne college is consulting on making 37 lecturers redundant and not filling 10 vacancies. There is a deep crisis in my local college, which is not some hick institution—it has a marvellous reputation. It achieved Investors in People status, and was the first in Lancashire to do so. In 1993, it was one of only three further education colleges to achieve the charter mark; the Prime Minister recognised that Nelson and Colne college was a fine institution.

The college was inspected by the Further Education Funding Council five months ago, in August 1996. The inspectors stated: Nelson and Colne College is a successful tertiary college in East Lancashire.… Governance and management are strong. Staff are well qualified. … Standards of teaching are generally high. Students work hard and make sound progress. Examination results are good. In governance and management, the college rated grade 2, which is defined as provision in which the strengths clearly outweigh the weaknesses". That is the background—a successful college whose board decided on 20 January to plunge it and the wider community into turmoil by announcing all those redundancies. I immediately contacted the college principal, Kath Belton, and had a meeting with her and her senior management. I asked why the decision had been taken. She replied that the college had to save £400,000. It had been operating a deficit, but that is no different from other colleges.

I consulted the annual report of the Further Education Funding Council, which was published only last month. It stated: The annual deficit incurred by the sector rose from £10m in 1993/4 to £101m in 1994/5 and stood at an estimated £119m in 1995/6. The FEFC went on to say: A deficit of this order cannot be sustained for more than a few years. I want the Minister to comment on that when he winds up.

When I saw the principal at the end of January, I asked whether the FEFC had been consulted about the redundancies. To my astonishment, she said that it had not, and that the decision had been taken by the board. I am not entirely sure whether all members of the board knew the reasons behind the decision that they were invited to take on 20 January.

I suggested to Kath Belton and her senior managers, from a layperson's perspective, that getting rid of 37 lecturers and not filling 10 vacancies would have a devastating impact on the scope and quality of the education on offer. I could have been knocked down with a feather when she said that she did not think that the quality and scope of education provision would suffer.

I do not believe that, and people in my constituency and further afield do not believe it. The principal is making the best of a bad job. She has been put in an impossible position by the board's decision of 20 January, but it is incredible that a college could lose so many talented staff and continue to provide a high-quality education for the young people of my area. I do not believe it.

I raised the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who told me at the beginning of this month, in typical Pontius Pilate fashion: It is for colleges in the further education sector such as Nelson and Coln college to manage their resources, including staff, as they see fit in the light of changing needs and circumstances. I wrote to Professor Melville, the chief executive of the FEFC, expecting that he would have something to say about the matter. He replied: Individual college corporations must consider how they will best meet required efficiency gains. … The Council the FEFC— does not have a specific role in advising colleges on their management processes. The Minister has no responsibility, the FEFC has no responsibility, so my college is left twisting in the wind.

I have read all the relevant documents from cover to cover—the National Audit Office report and the purple report from the FEFC. On page 94 of its annual report, the FEFC states that, as a priority, it monitors the financial health of the sector and of individual colleges and advises colleges on their financial planning and financial control systems". It did not advise Nelson and Colne college. There has been no contact at all.

I shall be brief, as I know that many of my colleagues want to speak in this important debate. I asked the Minister what steps the Department would take to assist further education colleges running operating deficits"— there are well over 200 such colleges around the country— to restore their financial health without jeopardising the quality and scope of the education offered". Only yesterday the Minister replied: Colleges are independent, autonomous bodies and are responsible for managing their own financial affairs. The Further Education Funding Council has effective arrangements in place for identifying colleges in financial difficulty and for working with them to recover their financial health."—[Official Report, 18 February 1997; Vol. 290, c. 455.] That is what the Minister told me yesterday; it is moonshine.

This is not an academic debate—[Interruption]—nor is it a matter for levity. Nelson and Colne college is an excellent college. It has a charter mark and is central to the local community. All those who should be able to help my college have washed their hands of it. Unless something happens, and happens soon, my college will be devastated by the loss of all those skilled lecturers. I hope that, even at the eleventh hour, the Minister will be persuaded to intervene and save education in my constituency.