I believe that further education plays a vital role in giving young people the skills they need, and supporting older learners into retraining and learning new skills. It is important that further education is put on a sustainable financial footing and that it should be affordable and accessible.
Since 2010, the sector has been facing sustained budget cuts, which have amounted to 14% in real terms. This has had a number of serious consequences in the provision of further education, from a sharp rise in the number of providers facing a financial crisis, to many reducing the number of courses that they offer.
The National Audit Office has concluded that "the financial health of the FE college sector has been declining since 2010/11", yet in my view the Government's recently introduced Technical and Further Education Bill offers no new investment and no new plan to deliver financial sustainability for this vital sector.
I am disappointed that the Government's solution, rather than providing the investment that the sector needs, is to create an insolvency framework for the further education sector. While I appreciate an insolvency framework may be necessary to protect students, the Government should also be providing the funding the sector needs.
It is very disappointing that in the Autumn Statement, delivered on 23 November 2016, the Chancellor failed to announce any new money for education. The current Government has overseen the biggest real-terms cuts in education for four decades. Spending on further education has been cut time and again, while student debt continues to rise.
I believe that over the longer term, we need sustained spending on skills and education. We also need to help young learners to support themselves as they develop skills and get qualifications. I am therefore pleased that the Opposition has committed to bring back student maintenance grants for university students and the Education Maintenance Allowance for students in further education from low and middle income families.
I will continue to press the Government to do more to help young people to stay in education and to invest more in further education.