20 October 2020
Peter Aldous leads debate on the role of colleges in a skills-led recovery

Peter Aldous outlines the leading role colleges can play in our recovery from the covid-19 pandemic and backs the Association of Colleges calls for college business centres to be set up to support employers and for a new deal for college funding.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of colleges in a skills-led recovery from the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. There are a large number of colleagues looking to speak in the debate, and thus I will seek to keep my comments brief and very much to set the scene.

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate during Colleges Week. This is the third Colleges Week celebration since the launch of the Love Our Colleges campaign in 2018. The week provides the opportunity to showcase and celebrate the role of colleges, 82% of which were graded either “good” or “outstanding” last year by Ofsted.

College education is something that we do well in the UK, but at times we unintentionally undervalue our colleges, which are at the heart of so many communities right across the country. In 2020, more than ever, colleges have demonstrated their value in supporting learners and businesses to deliver quality learning and training despite the challenges raised by the covid pandemic. Colleges have supported students through exam confusion, launched T-levels and adopted programmes for the safe delivery of learning both in person and online. It is also important to thank colleges for the role that they have played during the pandemic in supporting their local communities. East Coast College in Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth created wellbeing packs that it distributed to care homes. Eight staff members cycled to Mount Snowdon and back—bear in mind that it is the most easterly college in the UK. They raised funds for the college’s food bank, and student Jasmine Foster created facemasks that she distributed to nursery colleagues, elderly neighbours and friends.

We face an enormous challenge as we emerge from covid-19 at the same time as we fully enter the post-Brexit world. There can be an exciting future ahead, but we shall secure it only if colleges are given the opportunity to play a lead role, are fully supported and are properly funded.

There has been college education in the UK for a long time. In 1874, the first art classes were held at St John’s School in Lowestoft, the forerunner of what is now East Coast College, with campuses in both Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth. College education began to take a more co-ordinated form in 1890, when county councils were provided with Government funding to develop technical education. It is fair to say that successive Governments in the first part of the 21st century have not paid sufficient attention to the sector. The focus on higher education is important, but it should not come at the expense of further education, and the sector took too much of the brunt of the deficit reduction strategy after the banking crisis.

In the last three years—indeed, in the last few weeks—there have been positive signs that the Government recognise the lead role that colleges must play in the covid recovery. The industrial strategy published in 2017, and last year’s Augur review, set the scene. The Chancellor highlighted the importance of colleges in his plan for jobs in July, and in his winter economy plan last month. On 29 September, the Prime Minister gave his lifelong learning pledge in a speech at Exeter College.

The foundation stone has been laid, but the country cannot afford a false dawn and we must now deliver. Our colleges are up for the challenge of working collaboratively with the Government and employers, both large and small, to support people and businesses through covid, to help people retrain and reskill, and to improve social mobility so that young people—wherever they live and whatever their circumstances—have the opportunity to realise their full potential.

From the early stages of the pandemic, it has been clear that covid will have a huge negative impact on employment—an impact that we have not seen for 90 years. The Resolution Foundation’s report on “Young workers in the coronavirus crisis”, which was published in May, concluded that young people and adults with lower qualifications are particularly at risk of unemployment. Many people facing redundancy or unemployment want to retrain in order to enhance their skills levels and to increase their job prospects. Colleges will play a crucial role in providing that education and training, and it is vital that they are properly resourced and supported. The funding and prioritisation of colleges must take centre stage in the comprehensive spending review, and the opportunity must be taken with the forthcoming further education White Paper to prioritise colleges and to restructure the systems within which they operate.

As highlighted by the Association of Colleges, the following specific issues need to be addressed. College business centres should be established. The Departments for Education and for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should work together to set up specific college business centres that support employers with expert advice. There should be a new deal for college funding, with a new funding formula and rates rising towards £5,000 per student. The increase in capital spending that the Government have provided is welcome, but the Treasury should also allow for further investment in IT and the development of specialist provision. Funding levels should also be appropriate to enable colleges to move towards the 2050 net zero target. A second stage of the kickstart programme should be developed by the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions, to enable those who lose their jobs to retrain.

To assist left-behind areas in levelling up, the shared prosperity fund and the towns fund should supplement existing skills policy in areas where economic activity is lower and unemployment higher than elsewhere. In Lowestoft, East Coast College is playing an important role in the preparation of the towns fund bid that will be submitted shortly.

Rightly, there has been much talk about the role of house building and upgrading infrastructure in the recovery from covid. If they are to play that role, we need to address the construction and engineering skills shortages that the Federation of Master Builders and the Royal Academy of Engineering have highlighted. More young people should be encouraged to follow careers in construction and engineering. There should also be better support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the sector, which undertake 71% of the construction industry’s training. There is a need to recognise the role that colleges can play in helping new entrants into the industry, and more must be done to strengthen their links with businesses.

I shall conclude by going local and highlighting East Coast College’s role in the economic recovery on the East Anglian coast. The college has just achieved an Ofsted rating of good. Its total economic impact is estimated at £264 million per annum and its £11.7 million energy skills centre for the east coast opened last year. There are great opportunities in our area. We are on the doorstep of two of the largest infrastructure projects in the world: the cluster of wind farms in the southern North sea; and the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station 24 miles to the south. There are also the exciting REAF plans to revive the East Anglian fishing industry. These are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for an area that has been left behind, but we will only realise them if the right investment is made in East Coast College, which itself is very much up for the challenge.

The Independent Commission on the College of the Future is due to report in the next few weeks, and it is likely that it will emphasise that the college of the future will be central to delivering a fair, more sustainable and more prosperous society. It is vital that colleges are given the opportunity, the support and the resources to play this lead role. If they are, a lot of people will benefit, a lot of places will benefit, and as a country we will benefit, as we bridge that stubborn productivity gap.



At the conclusion of the debate

Peter Aldous

This has been a wide-ranging debate; we have covered a lot in an hour. I will quickly highlight some points raised. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) mentioned that colleges are the greatest tool in combating poverty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), the Chair of the Education Committee, made the social justice case for a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) showed how her college is deeply embedded in her community. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) highlighted how her college is getting involved in kickstart. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) showed collaborative working on the BioYorkshire initiative. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) highlighted the problems with the apprenticeship levy for SMEs. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) highlighted the role here for levelling up. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) talked about the global expertise coming from his colleges, and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) highlighted the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

The clock is ticking. For a few seconds, let us suppose that that clock is ticking to midnight. Let us make sure that Cinderella really does disappear this time, that this is no longer the Cinderella part of education, and that we will not need VAR to determine that that is the case.