My Lords, I warmly welcome this report and I congratulate Dr Philip Augar and his team on many of their recommendations. There was one thing that hurt me a little in the foreword, where Dr Augur claims:
“No prior government of any persuasion has considered further education to be a priority”.
I refute that. When my noble friend Lord Blunkett was Secretary of State and I was the Minister of State responsible for post-16 education we gave a great deal of priority to further education. Indeed, we increased spending on FE by 12% per annum, so I hope that that can be noted.
I am particularly glad that further education has been given so much attention by this report, because it has been greatly neglected by this Government and their predecessor. I was amazed by the Prime Minister’s statement that she considers this to be a very important sector for social mobility, technical education and so on. Given that she said that fairly recently I cannot imagine what she thought she was doing in allowing the huge cuts that were implemented by the Government and by their predecessor. I want to pick up on the point about “the headline issue”, as my noble friend Lord Bassam called it, of the £7,500 fee. I was always opposed to the £9,000 fee and I support this reduction; however, I very much hope that the debate about this report will not focus on higher education and what we charge students. That seems to me to be a secondary issue compared to how we restore FE to the state it needs to be in if we are to improve the productivity of our economy through higher skills of young people and adult learners in further education.
Can the noble Viscount give us some indication of a timetable for the implementation of these proposals? I fear there is a grave danger that they will sit on a back burner for many months, given the state of the Government at the moment and the lack of a new leader yet. I hope that some of these proposals can be considered for implementation as a matter of urgency, especially the funding of FE but also the outrageous level of interest of 6% charged to higher education students on their student loans.