It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and to hear so many excellent contributions.
It is no secret that this Government are presiding over rising inequality in education. All 26 schools in my constituency face real-terms cuts to their budgets; university tuition fees have risen threefold; and maintenance grants and education maintenance allowance have been scrapped, hitting students from the poorest and most deprived households the hardest.
Colleges are a beacon of hope and opportunity in our local communities. As John van de Laarschot, chief executive officer of Nottingham College, says:
“Rooted in local communities and with broad and deep links to local employers, Further Education Colleges like ours help people of all ages and backgrounds to make the most of their talents and ambitions through top-class technical education, basic skills and lifelong learning. We play a crucial role in driving social mobility and boost local and regional economic competitiveness.”
But colleges are dealing with sustained under-investment that is nothing short of a financial crisis.
Recently, the Institute for Fiscal Studies crowned further education “the biggest loser” in education over the last 25 years, and no wonder, as its research has revealed that since 2009 college funding has fallen by 30%, and funding per sixth-form student has fallen by 21% since 2010-11. Of course, we may soon say goodbye to European funding, which often helps colleges over the line.
This is all happening at a time when colleges’ costs have increased substantially. As has been recognised, the 16 to 18 budget has been frozen by this Government for seven consecutive years at £4,000 per student. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner states that by the end of this decade, as a country we will be spending the same amount of cash per 16 to 18 student as we were in 1990. That simply cannot be right, especially when we know that the years from 16 to 18 are such a critical time in young people’s lives. It is the time when they often need the most support and when they face multiple pressures. From sitting or perhaps resitting some of the most important exams of their lives to deciding whether to apply to university or seek an apprenticeship, they are getting to grips with adulthood and making choices that will often shape their whole future. Too many students of that age face mental health problems, but a survey by the “Raise the Rate” campaign has found that many colleges are having to make significant cuts to mental health support just when it is most needed.
The continuing budget freeze, teamed with rising costs, means that ultimately colleges are being asked to do more with less. Nottingham College is currently working with a total income of £86.8 million—a 26% reduction since 2012-13. In the last year alone, it has rationalised sites and closed an on-site nursery. Of course, this is not happening just in my constituency. As we have heard, college students all over the country face less choice in the curriculum on offer and reductions in teaching and learning support, and they are often unable to access the same extracurricular activities, work experience opportunities and university visits as their peers in private and selective schools.
Adult further education, which plays a vital role in increasing social mobility, is also dependent on the success of our colleges, but funding has fallen by 45% in nine years, and enrolments of adult students have dropped from 5.1 million to just 1.9 million over the same period. Learning is not just for the young; it is something for all of us and we should be able to access it throughout our lives. As the nature of work changes, we need to be ready to reskill and retrain, to adapt to new technologies and take up new opportunities. The Government say that they are committed to increasing social mobility, yet funding for vocational and adult education has been decimated. Gone are the days of taking an evening class at a local college after work. The second chances that life-changing lifelong learning courses provide are being destroyed. As has been recognised, that not only makes people’s lives less fulfilling; in many cases, it just makes them less fun.
It is not just college students and potential learners who are affected by the lack of funding. Since 2009, college staff have seen their pay fall by 25%. According to the UCU, teachers in further education colleges earn on average £7,000 a year less than teachers in schools, often for the same work. No wonder that they have been leaving the further education sector in their droves. Since 2010, 24,000 have left, which is one third of the total teaching workforce. In Nottingham College alone, there has been a 34% reduction in teaching staff since 2012-13; the number has gone from 937 down to 616. Hard-pressed staff simply cannot be expected to continue doing more for less.
I am proud to speak today on behalf of Nottingham College’s 40,000 students and 1,500 staff. There is of course some good news: the new City Hub campus will provide excellent learning facilities and transform a brownfield city centre site.
We are asking the Minister to increase funding to sustainable levels. Will she give a guarantee of real-terms funding rises for the coming five years? Will she commit to extending the pupil premium to cover post-16 students? Will she ensure that everyone can access lifelong learning, particularly those who have not achieved a level 3 qualification? Will she ensure that colleges can offer their staff a decent pay deal this year and in the years ahead? We in this Chamber all love our colleges; I hope that our colleges love the Minister’s reply.