Bethan Sayed, South West Wales Plaid Cymru AM
On Wednesday in the National Assembly, something unusual happened.
The Labour Welsh Government lost a vote.
Although it was a free vote, the Government had said they would be voting against and they don’t like to lose votes – or to have their own members vote against the view of their Ministers.
I had submitted a motion calling for no more cuts to further education and lifelong learning in Wales – a sector that has been the persistent target for cuts for years.
Since 2013 the college sector has lost almost 8% of its funding and cuts to part-time courses have been severe – around 70% in the same period.
If we’re serious about reversing the long-term decline in the Welsh economy and to raise skills, incomes and productivity then the further education sector is crucial.
More often than not a college or vocational education is seen as a less prestigious option for education – despite an increasing need to train and learn throughout our lives and careers, in an ever-changing economic landscape.
For years, the Welsh Government haven’t taken the role of the sector seriously beyond buzzwords and soundbites.
Their employability plan and industrial strategies place demands and expectations on colleges and the wider skills and learning sector but in reality, nobody can take these plans and sentiments seriously when the funding has never been there to support what they claim is a big priority.
During the debate in the Senedd, I think we may have hit upon something – particularly judging by the defensive reaction of Labour to what was, at the end of the day, a non-binding individual members motion.
Labour members looked uncomfortable when I pointed out that we know that the Welsh Government don’t consider further education much of a priority, because the Minister responsible, Eluned Morgan, has said so herself.
Indeed, in what was an extraordinary move, the Welsh Labour leadership hopeful told the BBC last month that her government needed to make her own department a priority – so by extension, maybe she needed to make her department a priority herself.
I was heckled by one AM and accused of indulging in ‘fantasy politics’ when I pointed this out and questioned Labour members and the Ministers’ responses claiming that Further Education was at the heart of Welsh Government economic policy.
Perhaps they were realising that their cries of Tory austerity as an excuse for every single policy failure is wearing a little bit thin.
The three Labour members who abstained on the vote perhaps think so. After all, the sector lacks any strategic vision or leadership and the Welsh Government minister cannot even outline when legislation is expected to implement an increasingly long list of recommendations from various reports.
The further education and lifelong learning sector should be central if we’re serious in Wales about reversing our economic malaise.
We can’t go on any longer without a radical overhaul of how we train and equip our people for an economy that’s rapidly changing.
At the moment, we don’t even have the skills and joint economic and educational planning for the economy of today, let alone the one we should expect to have in five, ten or thirty years’ time.
As Plaid Cymru’s shadow minister for post 16 education, innovation and skills I will be pushing this agenda into the forefront of political debate.
And, judging by Wednesday’s debate, there are some on the government side of the National Assembly who agree that the current situation just isn’t good enough.