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Adult Education Devolution: Choice of Colleges

Volume 693: debated on Monday 26 April 2021

What assessment he has made of the effect of the devolution of the adult education budget to combined authorities on the choice of colleges available to students living near the authority boundary. (914721)

Devolution gives providers an opportunity to work with mayoral combined authorities to shape the ways in which they can contribute to meeting skills needs locally, so that more people of all ages and backgrounds are given the opportunities to develop the skills and experience they need. Devolution is based on the residency of learners, so where learners reside near boundaries, they need to attend a provider with which their funding body contracts. Many providers are funded through a number of areas to overcome this.

Both Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Liverpool city region have been refusing funding for their residents looking to study outside their boundaries. That is severely limiting the choices available to students and has left West Lancashire College in my constituency, near both the Liverpool and Greater Manchester boundaries, with a greatly reduced potential student pool. Liverpool has agreed to stop this but Greater Manchester has not. What advice can the Minister give to local authorities acting in this protectionist way with taxpayers’ funds, to the detriment of places such as West Lancashire College?

We would encourage all mayoral combined authorities always to look at outcomes for learners. We are there to ensure that learners get the best experience and outcomes. The White Paper that we published in January 2021 sets out the Government’s overall objective for the funding system, which is to streamline the system so that there is a simpler allocation approach that will give greater autonomy and flexibility, and we also want an effective approach that improves accountability. We are currently working with the sector to develop and test our proposals ahead of consultation.

The Minister refers to a simpler adult education funding approach, but the decision to increase the adult education clawback threshold from 68% last year to 90% this year, and to impose it at the last minute, will place many colleges in a brutal financial situation. Leicester College, for example, is forecasting that it could be as much as £4 million worse off than expected. The Government can either commit to a skills-based revolution, as they claim they want to do, or endanger the sector by repeatedly cutting its funding; they cannot do both. Why is there such a dangerous discrepancy between what the Government say they want on further education and what they do?

The Government have actually increased funding across the sector quite significantly in many different ways. On the issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to, it is wrong to categorise it as such. We have effectively changed from 97%, which is the clawback this year, down to 90%, thereby giving colleges some leeway. He refers to a previous year, and it is true that we did reduce it to 68%, because that was at the very beginning of the pandemic. We have asked providers to keep provision available, to move online and to give learners that experience, and we have given them time to do so. That is a fair approach.