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Mr. Hayes: Like the Minister, I am pleased that we are coming to the end of our journey. It has been a long journey, but not an altogether uncomfortable one. It has been characterised by a broad measure of agreement and co-operation in trying to make the best of the Bill. I acknowledge, as I have previously, that the Minister has listened to argument put by both the Opposition parties and by others in an attempt to improve the Bill. I hope that he acknowledges that the Opposition have played a constructive part in that
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process, although there is sometimes need for drama and colour in our considerations, and we have tried to provide those as well.

This is not a bad Bill, but it is not good enough. Its worst facet is what it ignores. I said in debate earlier that it was extraordinary that the Bill was passing through the House at the same time as the Government were considering their response to the Leitch review of skills. The Leitch report has been in the public domain for a considerable time. The Government have yet to respond to it, but the Bill could well have included proper consideration of the kind of matters that Lord Leitch examined. It is curious that the Government, who are about to respond to a major piece of work that they commissioned, should introduce a Bill dealing with further education and training in the full knowledge of the fact that that review might necessitate further legislation in the short term.

When I tested the Minister on that in Committee, he was in denial. I appreciate that, as he suggested earlier, Ministers can deal only with the material that they have at the time that they have to deal with it, but it is now clear that there will be further legislation in some form later this year in the Queen’s Speech, to address some of the issues on which Lord Leitch reported and with which we anticipate the Government will deal in the short term. We hope that even next week we might know more about the details of that.

The Bill acknowledges, as did Lord Leitch, that skills matter, not only for our economic competitiveness but for the individual well-being of millions of our countrymen. The debate on skills is often conducted in a rather utilitarian way. We are actually speaking of the life chances of millions of Britons who pass through FE colleges and benefit from the quality of teaching and learning that takes place there. The Bill has a direct relationship with those experiences. When I champion skills, I do so not for some dull, utilitarian reason, but because I want those people to have the best possible opportunities and for their life chances, economic opportunities and sense of worth to be enhanced by the skills they acquire. That is why I am a robust, vigorous and determined advocate for our further education colleges and those who govern, lead and teach in them, and have been so throughout the passage of the Bill.

I acknowledge that the Minister, too, has spoken for FE in a way that politicians on both sides of the House have done too infrequently in the past. The exception to that, of course, is my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who has made a typically intelligent, thoughtful and measured contribution to the passage of the Bill. What a privilege it is to be a Member of the House alongside him, and what a loss he will be to this place when he enters retirement—prematurely, in my judgment—as he says he will at the end of this Parliament. He showed again today why he was such an excellent Minister and why he is such a very good friend to those of us who without his skill and expertise struggle with these matters.

Further education is vital in enhancing the nation’s skills, but there are other things to be said about it. There is also immense educational, cultural and social capital in FE, and we must not see FE colleges merely as a vehicle to deliver skills, for other aspects of what they do count too. I believe in education for democratic citizenship, to use the words of Rab Butler, through
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adult and continuing education. I am sorry that we have lost nearly 1 million adult and continuing education places on the Minister’s watch.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the unmerited personal tribute that he just paid me. Before it fades, may I ask him whether he shares my view of the educational merits of vocational education? Many young people who have failed at school in the conventional academic system go to college or go through training at their workplace and find themselves confronted for the first time with the world of work, where they also need general educational skills, and they enthusiastically acquire them because they then see the point of doing so—but that requires the vocational context.

Mr. Hayes: I would make two points in response to my hon. Friend’s typically incisive intervention. First, his reputation will never fade in the hearts and homes of South Holland and the Deepings for all the time that I am the representative of that place in this place. Secondly, he is right to focus on the difference that further education can make to people who have not always had the most successful experience at school. Many people return to education through FE or adult and community learning—continuing learning of the kind that I described. It is vitally important that we see further education not merely as a vehicle for delivering skills to the existing work force, although it is vital, given the demography, that we upskill and reskill our work force in order to meet the skills target; and not merely as a vehicle for equipping a new generation of young people with essential vocational skills—I shall speak more of that in what will be a lengthy peroration in a few moments—but as an opportunity for people to acquire all kinds of other competencies that add to their sense of worth, for the acquisition of practical skills can achieve that just as much as the acquisition of academic qualifications. For too long in this country, we have undervalued those practical competencies and elevated academic learning as the only means of delivering the sense of value to which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry alludes.

In speaking about what the Bill says, rather than what it does not, I would like to talk about its unhelpful aspects. I do so with hesitation because I do not want to be unkind to the Minister, having praised him earlier. I do not want to injure him in any way—he is a sensitive soul—but it is important to point out that the Bill may be unhelpful both in respect of the intervention powers we debated at some length in Committee, which he and I have discussed privately a number of times, and of the lack of clarity about the ongoing role of the Learning and Skills Council.

I shall explore those two matters for a moment or two. We had a lengthy debate about the first point earlier, so I will just say the following. In the end, it seems unconvincing for the Government to argue that they are in favour of Andrew Foster’s recommendation that FE colleges move to greater self-regulation, while simultaneously arguing that the LSC should have new powers to dismiss college governors, principals and senior managers. Of course, it is right that long-line powers are vested in Government when public money is being spent, to ensure that in cases of an absence of
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quality or probity an intervention takes place. In the interests of learners, as the Minister said earlier, we all want to protect people against such circumstances.

However, I am not convinced that those powers, which have never been used—I repeat, they have never been used—although already in the hands of the Secretary of State, should be extended and transferred to the Learning and Skills Council. I simply do not buy that that is not paradoxical, and nothing that the Minister has said today, previously or in Committee has persuaded me one iota of the strength of his case. It may be that the Association of Colleges has come to a different view about that—I respect it, and I have had many dealings with it, as has the Minister—but I am not yet convinced. We need to test the matter further, and I look forward to seeing what the other place has to say about it when it considers the Bill following our consideration.

The second unhelpful aspect of the Bill is the embedding of the role of the Learning and Skills Council at a time when we are not sure of the Government’s position on the future of the LSC. If they respond to Lord Leitch’s review in the way that they might, which is to say that sector skills councils should be the principal conduit for the management and funding of skills, and they respond to his recommendation that we move to a more demand-led system with employers in the driving seat, that at the very least means a different role for the LSC, and it may mean a diminished role. However, the Bill, by developing and enshrining in law a regional structure, effectively embeds the Learning and Skills Council in the management and funding of skills. I am not sure whether that it is sensible. Again, it arises from the extraordinary position whereby we are debating a further education and training measure against the background of a review of skills to which the Government have yet to respond. That is not good government and I do not believe that the Minister, in his heart, thinks it is either. Hon. Members of all parties who have spoken to me about the matter expressed reservations about the Government’s conduct.

Those reservations were expressed loudly and with Celtic lyricism when it came to the matter of Wales. Given the contributions from some of the House’s distinguished Members, we can conclude only that, as far as Wales is concerned, the matter has not been handled as it could and should have been. The argument that pre-legislative scrutiny would have been beneficial to clarify the position on degree-awarding powers and Welsh colleges was clear and unequivocal. It is an unanswerable case and so the answer that we got was as unconvincing as could be.

The Bill therefore has unhelpful aspects, but let me consider the more promising elements, about which there has been broad agreement. Perhaps the most significant aspect is the extension to FE colleges of the power to award foundation degrees. That lies at the heart of the measure. Conservative Members passionately believe that FE colleges provide an important element of widening participation, not only in further education but in higher education. It is understated that further education institutions teach a
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great deal of higher education. They teach many degree courses, and approximately 12 per cent. of higher education already takes place in further education colleges. Foundation degrees provide an opportunity to widen and deepen participation in a new and exciting way.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that many people are unable to study away from home for various reasons, including domestic responsibilities, but are at a stage in their lives when they could take advantage of a higher education course? Being able to do that at their local FE college means that they can study the subject that they want without having to leave home to do it.

Mr. Hayes: With her usual care and insight, my hon. Friend has anticipated some of my comments. She is right that FE colleges are local, community based, highly responsive and flexible about modes of study. They are therefore successful at recruiting learners of a type that HE—with notable, honourable exceptions—is not so successful at recruiting. The facts speak clearly. Further education has a greater proportion of ethnic minority learners, mature learners and learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, who study both FE and HE courses. That is partly because, as my hon. Friend said, they are more flexible, local, accessible and responsive than their counterparts in the university sector. That is not to say that universities do not do excellent work—many do. However, FE can play a critical role in widening participation. The Bill is therefore right to extend the power to FE colleges to award foundation degrees.

There are important caveats. We have argued throughout the Bill’s passage that the degree brand must not be diminished by the change and that it is important to maintain rigorous quality; that the progression from foundation degrees to other professional qualifications and, indeed, full degrees must be assured; and that partnership between universities should be maintained where it is already strong and grown where it does not exist. There are important qualifications to our support in principle for those provisions. We have listened to the representations from Universities UK, which has made a measured and strong case to us about such issues. That is why we have both argued publicly and lobbied Ministers privately to try to persuade them to amend the Bill, as they have indeed amended it, to take account of some of those concerns.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the great thing about further education institutions, as opposed to higher education institutions, is that the wider public perceive it as less elitist, because further education institutions take in those who might be from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who never had a chance to progress their education at all? We have a great opportunity to support further education, for that very reason.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend makes a good case, but there is a danger in overstating it. I am familiar with the Institute of Continuing Education, based at Cambridge university, and with other organisations in the HE sector that do immensely valuable work in
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ensuring that people from all kinds of backgrounds, in all kinds of localities and studying all kinds of courses can have an interface with the very best institutions, resources and teachers. Many universities are doing good work on that, but my hon. Friend is right in essence that FE is more appealing to many learners because of its localness and accessibility, and its style and character.

On a more functional level, the issue is also about modes of learning. Modular courses, distance learning and part-time learning are critical for certain kinds of learners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) pointed out. FE is particularly good at those things. The Bill is right to build on that principle and right to give further education the enormous fillip that it will get from the granting of foundation degrees.

The process will be measured and gradual, because the criteria will set the standards high, so there is no suggestion that the measure will weaken the quality of what is offered. I hope that it will also facilitate good relationships between HE and FE, owing to the changes that have taken place during the passage of the Bill. There was a risk that that would not be so when the Bill was first published, but things have moved on. The Minister has listened to and learned from the representations that have been made. We can achieve the ambition of widening participation without damaging the degree brand or damaging those good relationships. My judgment, therefore, is that the proposals at the heart of the Bill regarding foundation degrees are worthy of the support that we have offered them.

However, there are ongoing concerns about how the Bill fits into the Government’s overall strategy for FE and HE. The landscape has changed while we have been debating and considering the Bill. There has been a seismic change in the structure of government. We have a new Department, a new team and a new Prime Minister with his own agenda. It is not yet absolutely clear where the Government are heading in respect of further education and higher education.

I make no apologies for amplifying the points that I made earlier, when we were discussing amendments. FE colleges are feeling quite insecure. I visit a number of further education colleges every week and I meet representatives of the sector equally frequently. I can tell the House that FE is most worried about whether the Government are really committed to its long-term future. FE colleges are worried that the change in the structure of government and the anticipated response to the Leitch report, or indeed the passage of the Bill alone, irrespective of the first two things, will mean that their future is less secure than they would want it to be.

I have enjoyed my exchanges with the Minister immensely. He now needs to give a clear signal in his final words on the Bill that the Government are indeed committed to further education colleges, and that they want them to move to a greater degree of independence, as Sir Andrew Foster has recommended, and to self-regulation of the kind that I have passionately advocated during the Bill’s progress. He also needs to give a clear indication that, in the Government’s response to the Leitch review, which we eagerly anticipate, there will be a bold series of steps that will enliven skills, allow the Government to meet
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their targets and enable a new generation of learners to achieve the status and worth that I described when I was advocating the glories of practical accomplishment earlier.

If we can have those assurances from the Government, we can end where we began on the Bill, with a determination to ensure that it will be good for FE and for learners, and that it will be a credit to the House and worthy of the support that it has received on all sides. I hope that the Minister will offer us those assurances today. If he does, I am sure that we can move together with a degree of unanimity, and certainly with a degree of consensus if we cannot agree on absolutely everything. On that basis, I offer the Opposition’s support for the Bill’s Third Reading. We look forward to its passage into law.

5.26 pm

Kelvin Hopkins: I am pleased to support the Bill through its final stages. I also commend my hon. Friends on the Front Bench for their work on improving it during its progress through the House. It is now much better than it was when we debated it on Second Reading. I also spoke in that debate.

I have a passionate interest in further education, having been an FE lecturer many years ago. I was also chair of the governors of Luton college of higher education, which is now the university of Bedfordshire. I am now vice-chair of the governors of Luton sixth-form college. As I have said many times, my constituency has the best further education college in the country, although others might argue about that. It was the first further education college to achieve beacon status, which speaks volumes for the quality of our college.

Early on, I was quite concerned about powers being given to further education colleges to grant foundation degrees, not because it was not a good thing to do but because I could see that conflicts might arise, particularly with the modern universities. Indeed, I was lobbied by the modern universities, one of which is, of course, the university of Bedfordshire. On the other side, I was lobbied by the Association of Colleges, which was very keen on the idea and wanted it to go ahead. Since then, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), has given me private assurances that the power will be used sensibly, and I hope that that will be the case. One of the main purposes of my speaking in this debate is to ask Ministers to exercise the powers carefully and sensibly, and not to cause difficulties for other colleges or, particularly, the universities.

The university of Bedfordshire awards foundation degrees and caters for lots of local students. Our large, excellent further education college might wish to award foundation degrees itself, and the two institutions might end up seeking students from the same local pool. That could have an impact on funding and on the viability of the university. These matters are significant for me locally, and for the rest of the country as well. Fortunately, both institutions have very good, sensible leaders. The principal of Barnfield college, the further education college, and the vice-chancellor of the university of Bedfordshire are both good friends, and I
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know that they have spoken together about this. I am sure that they will co-operate and work together sensibly, whatever they decide to do. However, it is important that these potential conflicts should be recognised. In many areas, there will be further education colleges without a local university offering foundation degrees. It may be a good idea to promote foundation degrees at those colleges in order to give local students greater opportunities for the future. One wants to encourage that.

There are more higher education courses delivered in further education colleges today than there used to be degree students when I was one in the 1960s. That reflects the quite astonishing growth of higher education in general, and of higher education within further education colleges. FE colleges are enormously varied organisations that put on a variety of courses—from simple leisure-based courses to courses for people with learning difficulties and those having a second chance, as well as for those studying for higher degrees.

The Bill has been somewhat overshadowed by announcements of constitutional change in the near future, as well as by a new Prime Minister and effectively a new Government. Significant changes are taking place that will have a major effect on further education and, in particular, on sixth-form colleges. I welcome that prospect and when the legislation is passed, I will doubtless speak to many interested parties there. I have been a passionate advocate of sixth-form colleges, as the Minister and other Members may know, because I really believe that they are the jewels in our educational crown. They work very well, they provide good value for money and they offer the best possible opportunities for students. They make a wide range of courses available, provide unusual combinations of subjects, have several teachers in the same subject who can reinforce and support each other, and do a wonderful job.

My constituency includes many people who do not come from traditional academic backgrounds. Some family members have never been past the school leaving age and many come from overseas where those opportunities were not available, yet they now have the opportunity to progress their education beyond A-levels and into university. Our sixth-form college does a wonderful job—about 60 per cent. of its students come from the full range of ethnic minorities.

One of the advantages likely to result from the constitutional changes is that local authorities may be more inclined to create sixth-form colleges than they were before; they are not going to close down their school sixth forms and hand them over to another sector. That will not happen. At a recent conference I attended, a sixth-form college principal suggested that if those colleges had remained within local authorities, there would have been 100 more of them. I shall say no more about that for now.

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