With the FE loans having launched a year ago, Mike Cooper looks at how the system is bedding in and why previously-unwilling providers might want to re-evaluate their thinking on what is a potential income stream.

Quietly, the new round of online applications for 24+ advanced learning loans has opened.

Learners aged over 23 meeting eligibility criteria, taking eligible level three and four courses, can get funding for 2014/15 course fees in similar ways to higher education loans.

As with the university context, there’s controversy over the principle and the practice.

Nevertheless, FE loans are now an established system, probably for the foreseeable future (even if it’s changeable, as when apprenticeships were dropped from the scheme earlier this year).

But some providers and learners still need to come to terms with greater learner self-funding.

Skills Funding Agency (SFA) figures for 2013/14, as of late January, suggest that provider engagement with the FE Loans policy and practicalities has been patchy.

Analysis of SFA’s combined loans ‘facility’ and ring-fenced bursary funding, shows totals for this year ranging from £7.14m to £5.5k.

Among more than a thousand providers listed, that’s an average of about £276.5k.

Without the near 25 per cent of providers who have no loans allocation at all, the average is near £363k.

Providers felt they should bide their time, and may even have hoped that FE loans might ‘go away’

As a proportion of these providers’ total 2013/14 SFA funding, that averages around 16 per cent. These are significant figures.

The intriguing aspect may be the ‘patchiness’. Are those providers with no current loans funding in that position because they offer no appropriate courses, or have no such learners? Or is it their choice? If it’s the latter, then the absence of this income stream seems potentially problematic — both for the organisation and the learners whom they serve. After all, loans funding can’t be vired — it’s a potential ‘use it or lose it’ income stream. If providers decided not to engage in the first year, will that now change?

Policy Consortium colleague Carolyn Medlin was involved in the joint SFA/Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) initial support programme in 2012/13, with more than 1,000 participants.

She saw providers who felt they should bide their time, and may even have hoped that FE loans might ‘go away’.

Certainly, some that she recalls from those occasions do not appear on the SFA’s 2013-14 spreadsheet.

One problem for providers entering the loans arena from scratch for this new phase is that external support is now far more restricted.

Subsidised workshops and consultancy through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)/SFA ended last summer.

True, some resources produced for them can still be found. My own experience working on later LSIS and National Institute of Adult Continuing Education loans support initiatives suggests that they won’t be adequate or sufficient, however.

As if to underscore this point, some of the providers with the largest loans funding in 2013/14 were ones that engaged most actively with support activities, last year.

Finally, three recent publications shed further intriguing light on the FE loans situation.

First, the March 2014 BIS update shows a total of around 60,000 loan applications to date from level three/four learners, for courses other than apprenticeships — 40,000 of those for courses other than access to higher education, such as QCF diplomas and certificates.

Next, the latest BIS research report in this field (No. 159: Tracking the impact of 24+ advanced learning loans) explored levels of awareness, knowledge, understanding and ‘intent’ about loans among providers, employers and learners in 2013.

The results are complex, but support the idea that some providers may still be losing out on the potential benefits which loans could bring, in terms of learners, learning and funding.

Finally, a current BIS consultation looks at proposals to deal with the clash between the current HE loans system and Islamic principles on loans. One established Muslim approach (‘takaful’) is otherwise recognisable as being like credit unions and mutual societies — a proposal that may better open up HE to observant Muslims.

But is such an approach applicable only to higher education loans and Muslim learners? Perhaps there are lessons there for FE, and all learners and communities.