Bus service cuts hitting FE and skills attendance with learners not ‘even getting to college gates’

Years of funding cuts in local bus services that have seen around 2,000 routes being trimmed or ended has left FE and skills learners struggling with “even getting to the college gates,” the National Union of Students (NUS) has warned.

Colum McGuire, NUS vice president for welfare, has spoken out in light of a Campaign for Better Transport report that shows half of local authorities in England and Wales have cut funding for buses this financial year, with more than £9m wiped off support for services.

The 24-page Buses in Crisis report says that since 2010, local authority funding for bus services has been slashed by 15 per cent (£44m) with more than 2,000 routes being reduced or withdrawn entirely.

The NUS, which is calling on the government to guarantee free bus travel for 16 to 19-year-olds, claims the issue affecting students in FE and apprenticeships across the country.

Mr McGuire, NUS vice president (welfare), said: “It’s really concerning to see further cuts to bus services for the third year in a row as NUS believe that transport can be a pivotal part to a student’s ability to partake in education. Transport that is expensive, inadequate or non-existent can be really harmful to access to education.

“If there are barriers to even getting to the college gates we cannot expect to see education reaching those who would perhaps most benefit from it. It’s very clear that investment in good transport links and services is beneficial to the whole community.”

According to the NUS, almost half of students living in less built up areas pay more than £20 per week to get to college, and on average paying £7 per week more than those living in urban areas.

Over the course of a year, these differences could add more than £250 to a student’s annual travel costs, it says.

The NUS further says that placement students, apprentices or those at colleges which have merged, leading to longer commuting distances are also more likely to struggle with high transport costs. And its research found that apprentices pay an average of £24 on travel, with many paying significantly more.

The Buses in Crisis report echoes one of the Association of Colleges (AoC) current manifesto calls, which says transport legislation has not caught up with the fact that everyone is now required to participate in education and training until their 18th birthday.

The transport rights for 16 to 18-year-olds in education should mirror those which apply to school children, according to the AoC manifesto.

The Campaign for Better Transport report says: “Government should look at ways of standardising and enhancing concessionary travel schemes for younger people, especially those in education, on apprenticeships or out of work.

“We and Greener Journeys have also suggested introducing a bus bonus scheme which would give a tax break on the cost of a bus season ticket for those in work or apprenticeships — this would cut the cost of bus travel and would encourage more people to travel by bus, widening labour markets and increasing patronage and economic output as a result.”

Joe Vinson, NUS vice president for FE, said: “It’s incredibly worrying to see these cuts being made to transport services. This is already a huge issue for our members in FE.

“The cost of travel can be the difference between making it to college or not, particularly for students from lower income backgrounds, and those living in rural areas. Further cuts to these services could see a whole generation of people being unable to get to college.”

Mr Maguire said: “Sixteen to 19-year-olds should have access to free bus travel, just as older people do, to enable them to be active citizens, and prevent them from falling behind in their education. No young person should be shut out from education because of financial barriers.

“This period of a young person’s life can be critical to ensuring they can build confidence and gather experience, which will serve them throughout the rest of their lives. Shutting people out of society at this stage can have long-lasting detrimental impacts.”