Half of colleges have seen a drop in enrolment figures, with the blame partly placed on the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
A survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) of 182 colleges shows 49 per cent are reporting falling numbers of 16-19-year-olds, compared to last year.
It also shows a national drop of 0.1 per cent, the first time in 15 to 20 years the figure has fallen, with 46 colleges reporting a dip between five to 15 per cent.
Colleges believe unaffordable transport, combined with the abolition of the EMA and increased competition for student numbers among school and college sixth forms, have been the main causes for a decline.
The survey is further evidence supporting the findings from two surveys – conducted by Lsect – and published in FE Week. The first showed that 105 colleges forecast an initial total shortfall of 20,319 students for this academic year.
Key AoC survey findings:
- Half of the 182 colleges that responded are seeing a drop in 16-19 students, with 46 colleges reporting a significant dip of between five per cent to 15 per cent
- Of those reporting a decline, colleges say the end of EMAs for students in the first year of the course, competition from other providers, lack of affordable transport and cuts in funding per student were the main factors
- A decline in Level 1 courses (pre-GSCE and basic skills) was reported by 41 per cent of respondents
- 51 per cent of colleges said that their student numbers have increased or remained stable
- 60 per cent of colleges reported a drop in transport spending by their local authority
- Over half of all colleges are ‘topping up’ Government bursary funding with their own contributions and the same proportion are spending more on subsidising transport this year than last
- 79 per cent of colleges agreeing that free meals in colleges for 16-18 year olds (currently not available, unlike in schools) would encourage participation.
Fiona McMillan, president of the AoC and principal of Bridgwater College in Somerset, said that at her own college EMA provided students with about £1,000 per year. Now, there is only £152 per year available for students.
She said: “We are all aware that funding is tight. But these young people are our future and we must consider our investment in them.
“We would all regret a situation where young people miss out and then become the so-called lost generation.”
Ms McMillan said the new 16-19 bursary, which replaced the EMA, is “better than nothing” but in terms of what it provides, “there is a big gap”. To cope, her college – like many others – has subsidised the cost.
She is also concerned colleges will miss out on vital funding, adding: “We are paid by our student numbers. So it’s an important issue for us.”
Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said some of the changes could be due to demographics – with a drop of 40,000 in the 16-18 age group. He added: “It is a complex picture. The decline in college enrolment by students on Level 1 courses may be partially explained by improvements in school teaching.
“What is clear is a significant number of member colleges are concerned that financial constraints are preventing students from pursuing preferred courses at their institution of choice and there is a risk of vulnerable groups becoming disengaged from education.”
Andy Forbes, principal at Hertford Regional College, said they are “about five per cent down” on 16-18 enrolment from last year.
He said: “We’re now projecting a figure of just under 2,600 against our target of 2,719.
“We have experienced a particular decline in Level 2 enrolments and at the furthest reaches of our catchment area, which stretches quite a long way.”
Mr Forbes believes there are two factors to blame, adding: “The withdrawal of EMA and the cost of transport from the two ends of our catchment.
“We were not helped by late arrival of concrete information on what funding we had to compensate for loss of EMA and how we could use that funding, which made it difficult to put financial support in place for students and publicise them effectively.”
He also said colleges need to work harder to get the message across about the “exceptional quality of provision” they offer, in the face of “growing competition from schools” expanding sixth forms by offering vocational courses.
He added: “The decline of independent careers advice isn’t helping young people make good choices at 16 and we in FE are going to have to be a lot more active in ensuring school pupils and parents are made positively aware of the alternatives to staying on at school.”
However, the Department for Education spokesman (DfE) said there are “record numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds” in education or training.
He said: “There has been a massive increase in apprenticeships for anyone over 16 to learn a specific trade – 360,000 places in all available in more than 200 careers.
“And we are strengthening vocational education so young people will have high-quality courses open to them which are valued by employers.”
The spokesman also said: “We are targeting financial support at students who need it most to get through their studies – through the new £180m a year bursary fund, with further transitional support available for those students who were already drawing the EMA.”
Gordon Marsden, Shadow FE and Skills Minister, said the “alarming figures” show the impact of the government’s policy to scrap EMA. He said: “The government has left FE colleges facing a double whammy at a time of real economic uncertainty.
“Not only are college finances jeopardised by falling enrolment numbers, but they face the strain of having to try and address the post EMA funding gap, putting extra administrative burdens on them at a time where they claim to be setting them free.
“The government needs to get a grip urgently with a strategy that will help, rather than hinder, FE colleges in addressing young people’s employment and skills needs.”
AoC said they will repeat the enrolment survey in September 2012.