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Further Education Colleges

Volume 301: debated on Friday 21 November 1997

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Jon Owen Jones.]

2.30 pm

I thank Madam Speaker for granting this debate on further education today and I thank the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) for being here to reply for a second time on a Friday afternoon. I know that it is never the most popular slot if a Minister has a long way to go for the weekend, as I know he has.

I shall dwell first on the financing of further education colleges. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary knows, many further education colleges are in severe financial difficulties and have been for the past four or five years— some for slightly less. Some 62 per cent. of further education colleges are now running a deficit, with a total deficit of about £90 million. The colleges also face the problem of convergence, as has been mentioned in debates before, which means that the finances of the colleges have to be drawn together so that they are within 10 per cent. of the average levels of funding.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has considered the funding of further education colleges and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced an injection of funding into the further education sector. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to answer one or two questions about the funding. Specifically, how will the extra injection of cash be distributed and used by the further education sector? If the examination of the finances of the sector is to be on-going, what is the nature of the examination and what stage is it at?

I turn to the administration of the FE sector. My hon. Friend will be aware of some of the well-publicised cases of abuses of power by college principals and chief executives. Those cases have been covered mainly in the pages of Private Eye and The Observer, although some other journalists, including those from The Times Higher Education Supplement, have also covered them. The root of the problem is that college principals and chief executives now wield considerable power with few checks and balances on its execution. Principals have often shown a tendency to sack trade union activists and officials and to conduct anti-union policies. They often replace full-time and tenured staff with part-timers, usually from a company called Education Lecturing Services, which is the biggest agency supplying part-time, usually low-paid, staff. I shall have more to say about that firm later.

Examples of thuggish behaviour by principals and chief executives are widespread. For instance, some time ago, the branch secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education at Accrington and Rossendale college, Pat Walsh, was summoned to a meeting with the college principal, Michael Austin. Austin then told Walsh that he had been made redundant and should leave the college immediately. Walsh, by the way, is a lecturer with 17 years' experience and no black marks against his name. As one might expect, the case went to an industrial tribunal, where the college's case collapsed and Walsh was awarded £27,000.

Probably the best publicised of the cases took place at Doncaster college where a lecturer, John Giddins, complained to The Observer that the chief executive, Terry Ashurst, had made his wife clerk to the governors. A week later Giddins was made redundant. As he already knew, if he had wanted to complain about that, the person to whom he had to go—happily for Terry Ashurst—was Mrs. Ashurst, as complaints went to the clerk to the governors.

In the past couple of days, I have had a letter from a senior manager who has worked at Doncaster college for many years, but who does not want to reveal his name because he is so worried. He wrote to say how intolerable he found the atmosphere of bullying and intimidation, and the principal's habit of slamming down on people who were at variance, even if only slightly, with his views on running the college. That is a sign of how far things have gone.

At Braintree college in Essex, the chief executive, Martin Bates, has refined the Ashurst system of appointing a relative to a key position, by appointing himself as the clerk to the governors. Now if there is a complaint about Martin Bates, the complainant has to go to—Martin Bates.

At Llandrillo college in north Wales, Guido D'Isidoro, a lecturer, was suspended after he complained to the Welsh Office about the propriety of the chief executive's appointing his wife as the college's finance officer. All he had done was to write to the Welsh Office, yet he was summarily suspended by the chief executive and now awaits disciplinary action.

The roots of all those problems go back to 1992, when the further education colleges were incorporated—a technical term which means that they were given their independence from local education authorities. At that point, the College Employers Forum—or the Association of Colleges, as it now is—was set up, and ever since then it has been run by Roger Ward, its chief executive.

Ward has been at the centre of the widespread policy of union breaking, of bringing in casualised staff and of bullying and intimidation. He has consistently encouraged colleges to get rid of staff and employ agency lecturers. To that end, with the Yorkshire tycoon and millionaire John Kirkland, he was instrumental in setting up the company Education Lecturing Services.

That company has always been the only staff agency recommended to further education colleges by Ward and his organisation, the Association of Colleges. In January 1994, a confidential policy letter from Andrew Wye of the Department for Education spelt out the role of the Association of Colleges:
"Roger Ward explained that the CEF"—
as the AOC was then called—
"has a definite strategy for moving the majority of lecturers onto the new, flexible contract".
Basically, that means moving most them out of work, then moving some of them back into work on a derecognised, casualised basis, on lower pay, with worse conditions, and usually with longer hours.

After visiting the Education Lecturing Services headquarters in Nottingham in June 1995, Roger Ward wrote to John Kirkland, the financier, as follows:
"Everyone is working hard to make our enterprise a success".
He said "our enterprise", not "your enterprise". That is how he saw it.

Roger Ward also has an interesting relationship with another company promoted throughout the country—Burke Ford Reed, a firm which provides pensions and insurance to the education sector. In 1995, Ward handed Burke Ford Reed a copy of the Association of College's entire mailing list within further education colleges, so that it could write to all principals, clerks and personnel managers about its corporate health care plan.

For some time, Burke Ford Reed paid Ward £650 a month. As a result, the Association of Colleges took action against him, although to date it has been limited and fairly inconsequential action. The AOC commissioned a firm of Newcastle solicitors to inquire into Ward's relationship with Burke Ford Reed.

Some key questions concerning Ward, the AOC and the two companies—Burke Ford Reed and ELS—are well worth asking. These questions concern many lecturers who work in further education colleges, and others who are concerned with the sector. First, what is the relationship between Roger Ward and ELS? What is the exact nature of their financial relationship? Secondly, why has Ward remained in post during the inquiry into his dealings with Burke Ford Reed? That is quite extraordinary: if he was a policeman under investigation for corruption, he would be removed from his post pending the conclusions of the investigation and would then be dealt with accordingly. Thirdly, was there any breach of the Data Protection Acts when Ward handed information to Burke Ford Reed? Did Ward supply information about the names and addresses of people running the colleges to ELS?

To get to the bottom of this, I press my hon. Friend the Minister to do two things. First, it would help to produce transparency if all the correspondence relating to the founding of the AOC—or the College Employers Forum, as it then was—was placed in the Library. That would allow us all to examine what went on during the setting up of the AOC and would help shed light on to the founding of ELS. Secondly, a great many people, including myself, would like an inquiry into Roger Ward, the AOC, ELS and Burke Ford Reed, and the general campaign to de-unionise the further education sector.

It is worth pointing out that this sector has served the country well. The Government rightly talk in terms of lifelong learning which is a crucial part of the Government's strategy to put education at the centre of the Government's thinking and actions. The further education sector has a crucial role to play in placing lifelong learning and education at the centre of people's lives. It can provide access to education so that people can go back into education at any point and gain new qualifications.

If it is to do that, the further education sector must be run in a strategic fashion. The present way of running the sector is, to say the least, anarchic and must be put right. I should like a rapid end to the policies followed by so many principals and chief executives across the country of bullying, intimidating, de-unionising and finally casualising the work force. The work force at further education colleges, as elsewhere, is crucial. De-unionising staff suppresses morale and, in the long run, there will be trouble and the sector could start to crumble. I believe that the root of the problems in the further education sector rests with the AOC and the way in which it was incorporated, and the way in which Roger Ward and his organisation have conducted themselves, particularly in regard to the activities of ELS.

2.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment
(Dr. Kim Howells)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House again. That is a long way to come from Pontypridd, as he knows, but it is worth it to hear him. He is a good advocate for further education and I am always glad to be here to try to answer some of his questions.

In answer to my hon. Friend, the Government take the funding of further education very seriously. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced just last week that a further £83 million is to be made available to further education. That is a lot of money in addition to the £3 billion that the sector receives year on year. We are keenly aware of many of the problems that my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend will recall that the Prime Minister has already announced that there are to be 500,000 more students in further and higher education by the year 2002. That is a large expansion in students for the higher and further education sectors and we hope that FE will take a larger number of those. In turn, that will mean a good deal of buoyancy in that sector, in terms both of its academic and training function and of the energy that will be put in.

I urge my hon. Friend to realise that there is a great deal that management and staff of FE colleges can do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that between £100 million and £150 million in services will be part of the new deal—welfare to work—and both he and I hope that FE colleges will bid for it. They have a major role to play in this great crusade to get people off welfare and into work.

As I have travelled around the country, I have met principals and staff who have been gloomy about the present situation, but I have also met some superb principals and staff who tell me that the crisis is not one of funding but of management. I am glad to hear my hon. Friend raise that matter. All too often, the first priority for a minority of principals and senior staff at FE colleges has been to assert their authority rather than delivering the goods, in terms of education, to a particular area. My hon. Friend knows that I have never believed that we shall solve the problems of training and skills shortages and of opening up access to many more people to enjoy the benefits of further education simply by throwing money at those problems. On the contrary, we already spend a huge amount of money on further education. I want that money to be managed much better.

I am distressed that craft training units—for welders and engineers, for instance—are being closing down and business schools opened in their place. That is not a good thing for FE colleges to be doing, although I can understand why they are doing it. Under the old system, with the demand-led element, they were getting more students for those facilities and in view of the unit price it was cheaper to educate and train them.

As a result, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), who is on the Front Bench beside me knows, in areas such as south-east Wales, which have a buoyant manufacturing economy—there are sectors of the economy that are very buoyant where my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch comes from— growth is being constrained by skills shortages. Further education ought to be right at the heart of supplying those skills, and I want it to do so. In that respect, there has to be much more discussion and co-operation—among the FE sector, the training and enterprise councils, central Government, local employers and other partners—in terms of how to go about it.

The future of further education does not lie in straitjacketed arrangements, whereby students and trainees go to campuses to receive that sort of training and lecturers teach courses in a time-tested and inflexible fashion. On the contrary, it was a great pleasure last week to open an open learning centre in my own town, Pontypridd, which is run by the Pontypridd further education college, a big college, and one which is doing a superb job in reaching out to people beyond the campus. I want the best examples of such practice to be disseminated everywhere.

My hon. Friend drew attention to some important problems. Under the old silver book agreements, the maximum limits on lecturers' weekly and yearly teaching commitments are 21 hours and 756 hours respectively. The overall working week is set at no more than 30 hours, and the working year at 38 weeks. I have many friends who are FE lecturers, and I have great respect for them, but I have to say that those seem pretty good terms and conditions. I think that there is a balance to be struck here. For colleges to respond to new demands for learning and to give access to many more people who have not hitherto benefited from education, there will have to be a great deal more flexibility, including flexibility in the deployment of teaching staff.

It is not surprising that many college staff in the best colleges, without bullying or coercion, have been offered and have decided to accept new contracts with better pay enabling colleges to develop new learning programmes at dates and times that are convenient for many new adult learners. Of course, I would agree entirely with my hon. Friend in deprecating any harassment or victimisation of lecturers who wish to remain under the silver book contract.

As my hon. Friend knows, at present the Secretary of State has only limited powers to intervene in local matters, such as contractual arrangements, concerning further education institutions. The Secretary of State has certain statutory powers to intervene under section 496 of the Education Act 1996 when satisfied that the governing body is acting or proposing to act unreasonably, in the strict sense in which that word has been interpreted by the courts; or under section 57 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, in the event of mismanagement or breach of duty by the governing body of an institution.

The Further Education Funding Council has a duty to take extremely seriously my hon. Friend's instances of abuses that have occurred; his examples are almost farcical in the injustices that they illustrate in the administration of colleges. We cannot officially become involved in the detail of particular local disputes, but the Government want to encourage a spirit of partnership between employers and employees in further education, as elsewhere. That can only be to the good of the colleges, the staff and students.

Casual contracts are a matter for concern. My hon. Friend deplored the use of agency lecturing staff in colleges. There are times when there is justification for using such staff, but not in the instances that he adduced. As with staff contracts, it is a matter for colleges themselves; in appropriate numbers such staff can provide a valuable flexibility, but I recognise my hon. Friend's concern. There may be questions, for example, about the depth of the general involvement of casual staff in the life of the institution, and colleges should do what they can to overcome any problems.

My hon. Friend may receive some comfort from developments that are occurring on a broader front. I understand that officials at the Department of Trade and Industry—who have overall responsibility for industrial relations matters—are about to review the employment status of agency and other staff whose position is less than clear. In addition, the DTI is about to review the protection afforded under the Employment Agencies Act 1973, to ensure that it properly reflects the modern labour market.

My hon. Friend asked about Roger Ward of the Association of Colleges. I understand that the association's board met on Monday 10 November. The chairman and chief executive issued a press statement at the conference saying that even though the Association of Colleges had no evidence to support the allegations made in the articles to which my hon. Friend referred it had suggested that the specific points relating to two of the sector's service suppliers should be the subject of an independent report by McKeag and Co., a leading and independent company of solicitors, who are to prepare a full report which will be made public. We shall try to ensure that my hon. Friend gets a copy of the report as soon as possible. It is important that he, and we, should have it so that we can take full cognisance of it. Mr. Ward has announced that he fully supports the initiative and is more than happy to make his personal files available; I hope that he will.

It is for the Association of Colleges to respond to articles about the matter in newspapers. It is the Government's position that further education colleges are responsible for their own staffing decisions, and for deciding whether to employ staff through employment agencies and, if so, which agency to use. That does not mean that we are not aware of the allegations of abuse. There should be absolute clarity so that we can explain to the public and to the various public spending watchdog agencies such as the Public Accounts Committee that we are convinced of the probity of the use of public funds. We shall watch the matter carefully.

My hon. Friend should be under no illusions about the Government's attitude to further education. We know that it has long regarded itself as the Cinderella of the education system, but we want a flourishing sector. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the allocation of £83 million for further education. That will help the sector to get through the next year. We realise that further education has, like no other sector, the potential to involve people for whom there is no other opportunity in education and training. In the university for industry and our whole strategy for lifelong learning, we want further education to play a much greater role than it has before.

Further education has avenues into some of the most disaffected sections of society. Where universities and schools, for different reasons, cannot succeed, it can engage with perhaps 30 per cent. of the population for whom education means very little, people who left school with almost no qualifications and for whom education means something that they had to endure as school children. They have few skills, earn little money and have few prospects for furthering themselves or their careers.

We must turn our FE colleges out to meet their communities. I have seen the best—such as the Birmingham college of food, tourism and creative studies—do that. A couple of days ago, I visited Bristol college, which has opened a new engineering training centre to engage school children and local firms in a partnership approach to technical education. That is the way forward: good creative heads who involve staff in a democratic and creative way as part of the whole project.

In my constituency, principal Jeff Cox is beginning to open the college to the community. That process does two things—I will finish quickly because I am running out of time. Not only does it help the community, but it makes people employable, helps local firms to tap the expertise of trainers and staff inside colleges and makes the lecturers and staff in colleges realise that they have an important role to play in their community.

I hope that when our regional development agencies take off they will realise what enormous potential there is in further education and will ensure that never again will it lack funds or feel demoralised. It is as important as any other element in the education system and we want it to feel like that. We intend to ensure that it does, so that it can play that important role in shaping the future competitiveness of this country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.