I thank the alliance between Wirral and Worcester for forging this debate. I must warn my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) that she is now linked up with the militant trade unionists; in the debate we had on BBC local radio stations, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) was strongly in support of the industrial action by the National Union of Journalists, so, given some of the attitudes at the moment, I just want to express some caution. I say these things but then I realise that Hansard has no irony, so I need to point out that that was irony.

These estimates debates are useful in different ways. As we have heard, they enable individual MPs to come from their constituencies and report their own experience of what is happening, and that feeds into a general understanding of what is happening in the field overall. However—I take this point from the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett)—there is another role for such debates: where there is a recalcitrant Minister, they enable us to hold that Minister’s feet to the flames, and where we have a co-operative Minister, as we do here, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they give us the opportunity to strengthen that Minister’s negotiations with the Treasury.

There will be a King’s Speech in the autumn, an autumn financial statement in the normal way, and a Budget next year. If we are honest with ourselves, the reality is that that will be a pre-election Budget. The Chancellor has an element of headroom to create, if not a Budget that will create an economic boom, then one that will spend more money to attempt to create a feel-good factor before the general election. Every Government do it, so we have to recognise that. There is a real window of opportunity for us to strengthen the Minister’s hand in those negotiations with the Treasury, and to reap quite rich rewards for—in the discussion of wider economic issues—relatively small sums that could have such an impact.

We all come from our different experiences, as we have heard. I dropped out of education and was then a production worker for many years. I went to Burnley FE college and did my A-levels, and then I came down to do university degrees, including a master’s degree and so on. That gave me an understanding of what a liberating experience education is. It also changes life chances, and that is what it did for me. I have been campaigning for a number of years to establish a national education service built, like the NHS, on the principle that it should be free from cradle to grave—from the early years through to school, college, university and lifelong learning. That is my ambition. We are nowhere near that at the moment, but I think there is still potential for it. We cannot go on in the way we are at the moment. That is why I want to do everything I can to support the Minister in those negotiations with the Treasury, and to arm him with the arguments that we have heard today about the scale of investment that we need.

I do not want to run through too many stats, and I will be very brief, but the reality is—we have to admit it—that education spending is below the OECD average. We are the 19th highest spender out of the 37 OECD members. I looked at the House of Commons Library figures, as others have done. They show that education fell as a percentage of GDP in every year from 2011-12 to 2018-19. That is the longest continuous decline in investment in education that we have seen.

Outside this House today were thousands of teachers—National Education Union members—demonstrating and marching. I joined them. They were protesting about pay, but—this is why I commend them—it was also about ensuring that there is proper funding for education overall. It was a twin demand on their part: their dispute is about pay but, as importantly, it is also about ensuring that education is properly funded.

Owing to my interest in FE, naturally I want to advocate for FE. My hon. Friends the Members for Wirral West and for Stretford and Urmston (Andrew Western) referred to the IFS figures, including the £6,800 spending per 16 to 18 student, which is lower than spending per pupil in secondary schools. I think one of my hon. Friends made the point about college and sixth form funding being only 11% or 12% greater than that of primary schools, having been two times greater in the early 1990s.

I will drill down a bit further into the figures. Total spending on adult skills—for those aged 19-plus—is set to increase by 22% between 2019-20 and 2024-25, and I welcome that, but the Minister should be saying to the Treasury, “That reverses only a fraction of past cuts.” Total spending on adult skills in 2024-25 will still be 22% below 2009-10 levels. The Treasury must listen to this argument if we are going to have—as others have said—the skilled workforce that we desperately need in a 21st century economy.

The IFS stated:

“Spending on classroom-based adult education has fallen especially sharply, and will still be 40% below 2009-10 levels even with the additional funding.”

The argument is irrefutable and I hope that the Minister does steam in, with cross-party backing for increased investment overall. As the Library briefing mentions, the IFS also stated:

“Spending on adult education is nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003-04 and about 50% lower than in 2009-10. This fall was mainly driven by the removal of public funding from some courses and”—

as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said—

“a resultant drop in learner numbers”


The Library states:

“Since 2011/12, the number of learners on classroom-based education and training has fallen by 42%”,

and “community learning”—let us think about that in a diverse community such as mine—has dropped “by 55%”. The National Audit Office report published in September 2020 detailed how

“the financial health of the college sector remains fragile”,

as we have heard today. This is not only about funding constraints; it is about uncertainty relating to the resourcing to meet future challenges.

Pay was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford. The IFS warned—exactly as he said—that below-inflation pay settlements for college staff mean that the level of pay is not a fair reward for the skills of those educators, and that that exacerbates “recruitment and retention difficulties” in colleges. The problems are everywhere—this is national. There is not a college without problems in recruiting, and that is happening because the qualified educators that we need literally cannot afford to work in the colleges, because it does not sustain them.

….. Without those staff, colleges will simply withdraw the course because they cannot get the qualified staff. That relates to investment, as well as to pay. One point that has been raised with me in my discussions with educators is that this also relates to the conditions of employment and to its precarious nature. If investment is not guaranteed for those courses, we get into a situation where some staff are on temporary contracts, and that cannot be right for the sector. We are dealing with people who have spent large parts of their lives gaining the qualifications that enable them to pass on that education to others.

…. At the moment, the going rate is not being paid in colleges, because the colleges do not have the funding that they need to do that. We will be caught in that vicious circle unless we ensure that there is adequate, decent pay within the sector.

Apprenticeships have been mentioned. In real terms, the figures for 2021-22 show that the level of apprenticeship funding was 11% below the peak in 2009-2010.

I cannot be on my feet without mentioning university funding, I am afraid, because it is one of the things that I have been lobbied on extensively. To be frank, the state has all but withdrawn from funding university education. Government funding for university teaching is now 70% below what it was a decade ago, and if we compare our spending on tertiary education with other advanced countries, we see that we are now bottom of the league. It is shocking: we put in less public investment than every single one of the other 38 OECD countries. To cite some figures, Government spending on tertiary education in the UK is equivalent to just 0.5% of GDP. In France, that figure is 1.1%; in Germany, it is just over 1%; and in the US, it is 0.9%. The average across the G20 countries is 0.9%. We are falling behind in this key sector because of that lack of investment.

I want to make another point that has been made to me continuously: the one area of funding in UK higher education that does not seem to have dried up is the pay of university vice-chancellors. Every single vice-chancellor of a Russell Group university is paid more than the Prime Minister. In 2021-22, the vice-chancellor of Imperial College London received £714,000. That cannot be right, and it builds resentment when we have low pay and a casualised workforce elsewhere—to be frank, that differentiation is just abusive. At the moment, we are in a dispute in London regarding the low pay of security guards and other facility staff at universities, simply to get them paid a living wage. That cannot be right.

There are other issues I would raise, but I do not want to delay the House. We have had an excellent debate today about the future of our economy and the skills that we need, but to achieve those skills, we need investment in the education itself. We have heard about capital investment, and I am pleased by some of the additional investment, despite the huge backlog. However, if we are going to deliver on that aim, the key ingredient is the staff. Unless we get the investment to ensure that we recruit the appropriate staff with the right qualifications—and not just recruit them, but retain them—we will not achieve what we want to achieve in terms of developing a 21st-century economy, particularly with the challenges of artificial intelligence, new technology, and everything involved in the fourth industrial revolution.

I say to the Minister that whatever support he needs in those negotiations with the Treasury, he has got it on a cross-party basis. Let us make this one of the key issues for the autumn statement and next year’s Budget. If there is anything we can do to help him, either publicly or privately, please let us know.

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