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Further Education Colleges

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 20 December 2012

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that further education colleges provide a modern learning environment. (134540)

10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that further education colleges provide a modern learning environment. (134545)

The autumn statement released £270 million more in funding to upgrade further education colleges, and I can today announce that details of the college capital fund are being published by the Skills Funding Agency. These new funds take to over £1 billion investment in college capital in this Parliament, because the Government believe in helping everybody to reach their potential.

The Government’s commitment to further education is very clear and very welcome. Ministers’ commitment to making sure that the merged Southwark and Lewisham college in my constituency is a success is particularly welcome. Given that we have now heard that the college intends to keep a major presence on the Bermondsey and Waterloo sites, may I encourage Ministers to continue to support the progress of developing a major educational campus, ideally including the university technical college and the secondary school, on the Bermondsey site?

The right hon. Gentleman and I had an extremely productive meeting with stakeholders on the future of Lewisham college, which is soon, as he says, to change its name, and I hope that a resolution can be brought that satisfies all parties.

Wiltshire college’s Chippenham campus missed out on a £36 million rebuild during the fiasco that was the Learning and Skills Council’s capital programme under the previous Government. The college now has more focused plans to build an engineering facility at the Chippenham campus. Will the Minister ensure that college campuses that missed out while the sun shone get more than their roofs fixed this winter?

Wiltshire college has already undertaken building works up to the value of £6 million, including through the third stage of the capital grants that were released this September. However, I hear very clearly the hon. Gentleman’s call for work at the Chippenham campus, and I look forward to receiving his submission. As I say, the details of the investment fund have been published today, so work can proceed apace.

Can the Minister confirm that as a result of the current plans for further education loans, his Department forecasts 100,000 fewer learners in the sector? What is he going to do to make sure that does not happen?

We are working very hard to ensure that those over the age of 24 in advanced learning have the opportunity to take out a loan if required. We are ensuring as best we possibly can that the process goes through smoothly and, most importantly, that everybody knows of the opportunities that are available due to the loans.

What steps is the Minister taking to work closely with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that obstacles do not come in the way of people trying to enter further education while they are in periods of unemployment? I have a constituent who had to give up a course because the DWP failed to inform the college on time that she was on the relevant benefit to get fee exemption.

For far too long the skills system and employment system have not interacted well and have not spoken to each other. I probably spend more time with the employment Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), than with any other Minister outside my Department. I had two meetings with him on Tuesday and will have three meetings with him today, so we are working extremely hard to try to bring to an end the inconsistencies that the hon. Lady rightly highlights and that have been there for far too long.

Central Bedfordshire college also lost out in all its attempts to get capital funding under the previous Government. Does the Minister have any words of encouragement for the college? Its buildings are old and need to be renewed.

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for Central Bedfordshire college. I am glad to say that the increased funding provided in the autumn statement means that those bids that narrowly missed out, such as that of Central Bedfordshire college, have a very good chance of proceeding at the next stage, not least because that college’s bid was very good value for money, though it fell down on some technical aspects. We are looking very closely at how we can proceed with the new funds available.

As well as needing bricks and mortar, a modern learning environment in further education colleges means expanding qualifications and courses, particularly in science, engineering and technology. The Gatsby Foundation, backed by Lord Sainsbury, told Doug Richard’s apprenticeship review that we would need more than 400,000 technicians at levels 3 and 4 over the next eight years and that we could guarantee quality apprenticeships in that regard by linking them to professional registration. Does the Minister agree that that offers an excellent opportunity for FE colleges and others to take a lead, but that they need extra resources for those subjects now, not later, if older learners are not to be put off from becoming technicians, as we have argued, and his predecessor, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), agreed when making concessions on FE loans?

There was rather a lot in that question. I certainly agree with Lord Sainsbury. The Gatsby Foundation does excellent work in producing more occupational qualifications that have the standing of the industries they support. More occupational qualifications in this country would be a very good thing, because we have serious skills shortages, not least, as the hon. Gentleman has said, in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—particularly engineering. We are doing everything we can, including working with Lord Sainsbury, to turn that situation around.