The consultation on the proposed 2013 introduction to further education loans is an important opportunity for FE to raise collective questions and push for a more detailed consideration of the impact on learners, the economy and education providers. The loans represent a seismic shift not only in the way FE will be funded, but how it will be received, managed and delivered by institutions. Just as HE had to adapt to fees, FE will have to adapt to learners paying for qualifications they were once entitled to receive. That there will be an impact is obvious, what that impact will be is certainly not so.

The removal of ‘entitlement’ is more emblematic of current policy than the introduction of the loans themselves. Learners over 24, many of whom may not have benefited from their years in compulsory education,  must now come to terms with the fact that the state no longer considers it within the “principles of fairness” to fund a Level 3/4 qualification that is likely to improve their life chances and employment prospects.

The sector will need to rethink how qualifications are delivered and embrace different ideas, but the issue remains as to where potential learners go if they do not feel able to accept a fee paying schema for further education.

When one considers who will be affected by the new system, the quick realisation is that it is the already disadvantaged who will be disadvantaged once more.”

Certainly, as is the case with HE, a system which allows learners to repay based on their eventual income should make sure that the possible initial barrier of ‘not being able to afford it’ is removed (unless courses cost more than £4000). Yet with many adult learners in FE currently coming from disadvantaged, BME or low income backgrounds, contemplating fees for lower level and essential qualifications will inevitably cause potential learners to question the case for study, where there was only encouragement before.

When one considers who will be affected by the new system, the quick realisation is that it is the already disadvantaged who will be disadvantaged once more. Those who may have been let down by the state in their past will be asked to pay for their future.

Equally, when we see rising unemployment for 19-24 year olds reported daily, how will this generation re-skill for employment if the state will not support it, and how will the unemployed learners who do take up FE loans be supported whilst studying without an FE equivalent maintenance loan or requirement for Access Agreements?

New Challenges, New Chances talks the good talk regarding a knowledge and skills based economy, whilst introducing financial implications for one generation to access what those below them are still entitled to.

Of the nine specific questions in the consultation, it is worrying that only one relates to the possible impact of FE loans. It is imperative that the sector engages with the sheer scale of this question and provides as much evidence-based opinion and data as possible. Perhaps just as importantly, the missing questions relating to the impact on providers must be articulated and highlighted. The trickledown effect of the loan system has not yet been fully contemplated; it is now our job to do just that.

Daniel Khan OBE is Chief Executive of the Open College Network London

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