Colleges call for FE loans to be delayed

The majority of professionals in the FE sector support delaying or scrapping the introduction of FE loans, according to a survey of Lsect members.

Nearly 70 per cent of respondents, who represent more than 150 different FE colleges, said the government should prolong the implementation of the scheme or abandon it completely.

The survey, designed with the Association of Colleges (AoC), National Union of Students (NUS), University and College Union (UCU) and Unison, adds to growing concerns about the impact of the scheme both on learners and providers.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: “The government has got itself in enough trouble by not listening to the experts in recent months.

“It now needs to listen to the collective voices from across further education that make it clear that the sector is simply not prepared for, and does not want, FE loans.

“As well as avoiding another NHS-style PR disaster, pausing now will allow some of the record numbers of unemployed people access education.”

The survey, which asked principals, vice principals and MIS managers what changes they would like to make to the proposed FE loans system, found that 69 per cent wanted it delayed or scrapped.

Very poor communication, nobody outside FE has any idea, and very few within FE understand and are fully aware of the issues and implications.”

Toni Pearce, vice president (FE) at the NUS, said: “Those working in the sector are deeply worried their colleges have simply not been given the opportunity to prepare for the havoc this loans scheme would wreak.

“The grassroots pressure to shelve these plans, coming from those who know the needs of their students best, is growing apace.

“The government must stop digging a hole for itself on this one and go back to the drawing board if a disaster for adult learners is to be averted.”

Respondents were also asked to score, on a scale of 1 to 10, whether they thought people were aware of the FE loans scheme.

More than half (55 per cent) said the sector was not very aware or prepared (1-4) for FE loans.

A further 89 per cent of respondents said the public was not very aware of the proposed system.

Debbie Ward, director of planning and funding at Salford City College, said: “Very poor communication, nobody outside FE has any idea, and very few within FE understand and are fully aware of the issues and implications.”

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of AoC, added: “The survey shows that college staff have significant concerns about public awareness of the policy and how it will be communicated.

“There are also lots of concerns about the impact on access students, engineering students and students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

“It is clear that more information is needed about the finer detail of how this policy will operate to allow colleges to effectively prepare.”

However, the government says it is “working closely with the sector” to make sure it is prepared for the introduction of the loans, which will be for those aged 24 and over, studying  at Level 3 and above in the 2013/14 academic year.

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) added: “Introducing loans will mean that thousands of people can access learning at a time when grant funding is being prioritised on those who need it most.”

FE Week will host a roundtable debate on May 9 to discuss the sector’s concerns about FE loans.

Speakers include Andrew King, lead for FE Loans at BIS, Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for further education, skills and regional growth and Miss Pearce.

Maxine Room, principal of Lewisham College and Peter Pledger, chairman of the Confederation of Apprenticeship Training Agencies (ATAs) and chief executive of South London Business, have also confirmed their attendance.

The Lsect survey follows a joint call for the delay in FE loans by the AoC, NUS, UCU and Unison.

The group has written to ministers arguing that the sector is not prepared for the changes and consequences of the system.

They also suggest a “pause” in the introduction of FE loans until there has been a full impact assessment and consultation with the sector.

(Click here for the survey figures.)

Update:

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has provided the following response:

“We are working closely with the further education sector to ensure they are fully prepared for the introduction of loans for those aged 24 and over studying at Level 3 and above in the 2013/14 academic year. As part of this, we are publishing monthly briefings to all providers and will be issuing communications to ensure learners are aware of loans and how to apply. In addition, the Skills Funding Agency and Student Loans Company will be running workshops for providers and the Learning and Skills Improvement Service will provide business change support.

“Emerging findings from the market research we have commissioned, which will be published later this month, suggest that most learners will consider learning funded by a loan. Introducing loans will mean that thousands of people can access learning at a time when grant funding is being prioritised on those who need it most .”