Sector calls for delay to FE loans implementation

Four of the largest organisations representing colleges, staff and students have joined forces to call on the government to delay the implementation of FE loans.

The Association of Colleges (AoC), National Union of Students (NUS), University and College Union (UCU) and UNISON will write to ministers next week arguing that the sector is not prepared for the changes and consequences of the system.

“The government must halt progress on the introduction of fees for college students,” Toni Pearce, NUS vice-president for further education said.

“We’ve all seen the consequences for students when things go wrong with the loans system and the government must not risk that happening again.”

We want an immediate halt to the implementation of the Government’s damaging fees policy or they risk residing over complete chaos and a fees system that is simply not fit for purpose.”

The letters sent to ministers will suggest a “pause” in the introduction of FE loans until there has been a full assessment on the impact of the system and further consultation has been carried out with the sector.

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said: “We understand that the impact assessment for FE loans will not be published until May, which will be the same time as regulations are brought before Parliament.

“We do not feel this gives stakeholders, nor indeed Parliament, sufficient time to consider the details of the regulations and also take into account the impact assessment.

“Therefore, we feel there is a need for a pause between publication of the impact assessment and the issue of regulations.”

The FE loans system will be introduced for the 2013/14 academic year, with learners applying from next March if they are over 24 and studying at level 3 or higher.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said the system would discourage potential students thinking about studying both at further and higher education.

“At a time of record unemployment the last thing the Government should be doing is putting up even more financial barriers to education,” she said.

“Ministers must listen to the concerns of staff, students and colleges before increasing course fees.”

Jon Richards, UNISON national secretary for education and children’s services, added: “Ministers risk pricing many adult learners out of colleges altogether, just when they need to update their skills to help them find work.

“We want an immediate halt to the implementation of the Government’s damaging fees policy or they risk residing over complete chaos and a fees system that is simply not fit for purpose.”

The call for a delay follows a letter, seen by FE Week and sent by NUS, UCU and UNISON to John Hayes MP last month, expressing concerns about the proposed loans system and the speed at which it is being introduced.

The letter requests an “urgent meeting” with the minister and an indefinite delay until “a concrete and tested plan can be put forward”.

It also expresses concerns about the Student Loans Company (SLC) and its capacity to cope with the further education sector, a far more complex and diverse system than in higher education.

“in previous years there have been numerous, high-profile complaints about the administration of the higher education loans system,” the letter reads.

“No detailed proposals have been put in place to show how the SLC will deal with a diverse further education system that has no UCAS-style central body to simplify the system.”

Some of the concerns about FE loans have been echoed by the 157 Group in a briefing document titled “Further Education Loans: Issues and Options.”

The briefing document raises issues about the future of Career Development Loans, the progression of adults through access to HE courses and the protection of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

It later proposes introducing the FE loans system gradually, “focussing at least initially on those area where the return on investment is highest and most secure.”

Lynne Sedgemore CBE, executive director of the 157 Group, told FE Week: “The FE system is so much more complex than HE in terms of the different kinds of programmes and how they’re delivered in relation to FE loans.

“We’re worried about the scale and the complexity of it, so we do urge a caution around making sure it’s all ready to go.”