Those of us who have been offering free partial qualifications and short courses for years know how crucial they are, writes Kurt Hintz

Not all of Boris Johnson’s “radical” changes to further education are that new. They’re welcome – but let’s get them right.

His biggest announcement was that adults over the age of 23 in England without a full level 3 qualification can get one for free from April.

However, the announcement does not include partial qualifications or unitised provision used on short courses. This is a huge missed opportunity. 

We at Capital City College Group (CCCG) know how important this is, because we already offer all our courses for free up to level 2 for adults and free short courses up to level 3 at our three colleges across London. We’ve learned a few things.

When I was vice principal of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London (CONEL), we saw the number of adults entering education dropping every year from 2014.

For many learners, a free short course is just the start

For people on the lowest incomes having to pay for their education, the choice was stark – either pay the rent or pay for a course. This is no choice at all. Our adult enrolments kept falling.

By 2016, the most common search term on our website was “free course” so it was clear the appetite for learning was as strong as ever, but cost was the barrier. 

A small but important change in funding rules for adults in August 2018 meant that anyone below the minimum wage could get a fully funded course. That was the catalyst we needed. 

With many of our learners on low incomes, we did the maths and took the decision to offer all courses up to level 2 for free regardless of people’s circumstances, even if they weren’t on the minimum wage.

In September 2018, CONEL announced itself as London’s first free college. Later that academic year we also began running hundreds of free short evening, daytime and weekend courses.

Thousands applied for free courses in the first year, from accounting and engineering to healthcare and science, and the college’s enrolments increased by one-third.  

I used to despair when I walked down our empty corridors in the evening, but suddenly the life of the community returned and the corridors were as busy at 6pm as they were at 9am. 

The huge success of our free courses has seen them extended to the other two colleges in the group, City and Islington College and Westminster Kingsway College.

For many learners, a free short course is just the start. Nearly half of ours have used them as a springboard for higher level courses. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of short course enrolments have been in STEM subjects.

One of those formerly on a short level 3 free course with us is now running her own plumbing business and has even returned to CONEL to help teach the course!

So in a way, the government’s decision to offer fully funded courses up to level 3 is a vindication of the work we have been doing locally for several years. 

It is more urgent than ever now, with universal credit claims in some of the boroughs that our colleges work in up by 300 per cent. 

But many adults will now want something short and sharp to get them into a ‘lifeboat job’ before committing to a more significant qualification for full reskilling. 

That makes it critical that Boris Johnson includes partial qualifications or short courses in his full-funding pledge. Otherwise he could seriously fail to hit the mark.

We’d also like the funding to be allocated to the local adult education budget (which in London is devolved to the mayor) and not the National Skills Fund. This would offer more local accountability and make it easier for colleges to access the money.

Meanwhile, the funds must be urgently made available – much sooner than April.

A focus on removing financial barriers is a very welcome shift from government. But let’s learn from where this is already happening and get this right.