I am very proud to have Central Bedfordshire College in my constituency. It is a multi-campus college, with sites in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, which are three of my towns. Of course, having a multi-campus college means that there are additional expenses.
For me, this issue is one of fairness. Every stage of education is important; none of us in Westminster Hall today has come here to do down our schools or the excellent work that universities do. We all want schools and universities to be well funded. However, the way that colleges have been treated in comparison with schools and universities is simply not fair.
How can it be acceptable that college teachers are paid on average less than 80% of the rate of school staff? We know that we have critical shortages of college teachers in engineering, maths and other critical subjects. We also know that the recent pay rise given to school staff of up to 3.5% was not given to further education. Again, that is simply not fair. We must stand up against it, because our colleges and their staff do brilliant jobs.
The second issue I will raise is the issue that this country has with productivity. The UK ranks poorly in terms of skills comparisons. The UK is in the bottom quartile of the OECD for level 4 and level 5 technical skills. Our colleges are the means of doing something about that. Productivity has been an issue in the UK economy for a very long time indeed, and it is our colleges that will be the answer.
It should also shame us as a country that, according to a report from the Centre for Social Justice, 85% of people who start their working lives in an entry-level job will finish their lives in an entry-level job. That is an appalling statistic, showing that only 15% of people escape and move on.
Our colleges are great poverty-busting institutions. They are the means by which we have the high skills that lead to higher pay and help people escape poverty. That is why further education is essential. We want our colleges to offer more. We want them to be open in the evenings and at weekends, so that people in those entry-level jobs can upskill while they work, in order to progress, to get higher pay and to put food on the table for their families and look after them. That is why this debate is so important.