I have been meeting black country FE college principals pretty regularly ever since I was elected, and in the last 18 months I have noticed a significant change in their approach. My previous meetings addressed their problems, some of which were to do with funding, but now there is an almost apocalyptic feeling about the representations they are making. They have been badly hit recently with the cuts to adult education funding. That has been compounded by the sudden withdrawal of funding for ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—which has had a significant effect on colleges with high ethnic minority populations. This is not just a party political issue; it comes from the college principals themselves and is recognised throughout the sector. The National Audit Office agrees, and so does Professor Wolf.
The second point I want to make is that if FE colleges are closed down and their numbers reduced, there will not just be implications for local education provision, but a profound impact on the Government’s stated long-term economic objectives. The Chancellor’s current mantra is the creation of a high-wage, high-productivity, skilled economy. What are the key elements of a high-wage, high-skilled economy? They are construction, manufacturing and engineering. Who are the education providers that provide the apprentices and, often, the intermediate education of those who take higher education in those areas? Why, it is the FE colleges. Over 50% of manufacturing and construction apprenticeships come through the FE colleges. If their numbers are reduced, the capacity to provide enough apprentices to strengthen those elements of our economy, which are vital to the creation of a high-wage, highly productive, export-led economy, will be degraded.