I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Let me start by paying tribute to the learners and workers, unions and employers, and colleges and training providers who have done incredible work over many years in providing skills, jobs and opportunities in the face of a Government who, for the past 10 years, have been more interested in slashing the further education budget. I am glad that today, after a decade of cuts to funding and opportunities, the importance of further and technical education to our economy and people’s life chances has finally been recognised. But even when the Government get things right—and there are measures in this White Paper for which Labour has been calling for some time—they come too late for families, businesses and our country.
I support the principle of expanding the right to lifelong learning to include study for a level 3 qualification for those without one, but this will only serve to reverse the damage inflicted by years of Conservative Governments who cut learning entitlements and replaced them with loans, meaning that the number of adult learners plummeted. The Secretary of State said that he wants more talented individuals teaching in further education, but the cuts in FE funding over the past 10 years have led to huge cuts in real-terms wages, which is driving many talented teaching staff from the profession. While I welcome the principle of flexible funding to allow more learners to access the skills they need, the Secretary of State said that this will not be in place until 2025—years after those facing the risk of unemployment right now could have benefited. I am also concerned that the Government continue to pursue a system of loans that will plunge students into more debt and create barriers to learning.
On the lifetime skills guarantee, how did the Secretary of State decide which sectors would be included, and how many jobs in our economy are in sectors that have been omitted? Can the list of sectors change depending on the needs of individuals, employers and our wider economy? What conversations has he had with the metro Mayors and combined authorities about local skills needs? What support will be available to those who are not qualified to level 2, or are already qualified to level 3 but need to train for jobs in a new sector?
There is nothing here for community learning, English for speakers of other languages, or basic skills courses. What support will be available for these learners? What will be available to those who want to study towards higher technical qualifications other than new qualifications that are at least a year away from existing? Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot have equality between further and higher education if only one of those routes benefits from maintenance support? When will the FE sector be given the long-term funding settlement that it deserves? Can he guarantee a sustainable settlement in the spending review this year?
We have already waited two years to get an interim response to the Augar review, and I remain concerned that the Secretary of State seems to be committed to a zero-sum game in which parts of HE have to lose—in funding, support or prestige—for others to gain. Does he agree that in fact the opposite is true—that we get the best results for individuals, communities and our country when they can get a world-class education by whatever route suits them, be it college, university or with an employer?On the teaching excellence framework, I am glad that the Secretary of State has finally abandoned the idea of a subject-level measure, as Universities UK, the University and College Union and Labour suggested he should, many months ago.
Most of all, the Secretary of State must surely realise that he has to act fast to address the disruption and uncertainty that our economy and labour market are experiencing. Almost one in 20 working-age people—1.7 million—are unemployed, and many more will feel their jobs are at risk. They are worried about paying the bills, about their jobs and about their future, yet what are they being told today by the Secretary of State? That they can access more training, but not for a few months; that they can access new qualifications, but not for a year; and that they can benefit from flexible finance, but not for five years. I urge him to go much faster in offering support to people who need it immediately. If we are to rebuild our economy from the ravages of the pandemic and secure people’s futures, we need action, and we need it urgently.