In recent days there have been some positive developments in the area of the fees policy, potentially assisting a number of prospective students who might have found the need to pay a fee a major barrier to learning.  However, whilst these last minute changes are very welcome, what is far less welcome is the timing and methods of communications of such changes.  Up and down the country college’s will now be hastily re-writing their fees policy and struggling to get clear and definitive information to students.  At best prospective students will be grateful for the new information and simply think that the College staff have not known what they have been doing when they advised them “incorrectly” weeks ago about their fees.  At worst, some students will have already decided college is too expensive for them, months before these late announcements which are intended to help them and no last minute change to the fee policy will get them back.

Writing a fee policy for a College is a difficult task.  The key challenge comes from having to produce a definitive guide, which can accurately and effectively inform prospective students, college staff and key stakeholders about what the fees will be and who they apply to, months before the policy makers have published the rules you have to adhere to.

For those of us who have been doing this for some time, producing this information within such an environment of uncertainly is nothing new.  Each year we eagerly await the publication of the funding bodies guidance documents to add “tweaks” to the policy, many weeks after it has been released to the public.

However, I think the “tweaks” this year are more extensive and later than any of us have experienced before.  First, there was the lack of any definitive funding guidance documents from the key agency, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA).  The publications arrived on July 29th, right in the middle of the period many college staff would be taking leave and on the final working day before the new funding year commenced.

Once received, the unexpected changes to national fee policy became apparent.  There was the expectation that colleges should not charge exam and registration fees to students being fee remitted due to them studying courses such as their first full level 2 or 3.  The implication of this change was the potential loss of income to colleges.  Whilst it appears that there maybe some softening of this line, colleges still await anything definitive from the SFA to know whether to charge our learners or not.

Then there was the new requirement to fee remit 19-24 year olds studying GCSE Maths or English.  Whilst all can see the positive in this move, especially for some on programmes such as ‘Access to HE’ where students often do these GCSEs alongside their main programme to help with entry to HE, it undermined the IAG we had provided prospective students over the past 6 months and prompted another “tweak” to the fees policy.

colleges still await anything definitive from the SFA to know whether to charge our learners or not.”

Then just as I’d finished digesting the guidance document, out comes an announcement from BIS that colleges are to be given “local discretion” to fee remit unemployed learners on benefits doing courses that will lead to employment.  For months, my information, advice and guidance (IAG) colleagues have been working with prospective learners on benefits such as Income Support, to help them understand that despite the fact that they were not working they would have to pay for their course in 2011/12 because of the change in fee remission rules.  Now, with our enrolment period starting in only 5 working days, after we advised hundreds of learners about the fees they will have to pay and after we have trained all of our enrolment staff about the new fee remission rules, what was black and white has gone a shade of grey and up and down the country colleges await another “update” from the SFA before our policies can be finalised.

In all these frustrations, I do not forget that a majority of the changes are potentially helpful to our students and therefore are welcome.  But next year, for the sake of our prospective students, IAG staff and those of us who write fees policies, can we have them a bit earlier please?

Jerry White is the Head of Planning and Performance at City College Norwich

Update:
Jennie Turner, Head of ESOL at Greenwich Community College explains how the changes in fee policy has affected her classes.