David Hughes speaking at the Adult Learners’ Week Conference

FE loans were a contentious topic at the conference and skills minister John Hayes addressed concerns in his speech, describing the loans as “a difficult nettle to grasp”.

Colleges have expressed fears that the loans will discourage adults considering further education. The sector has criticised the government for not consulting it fully on the change or running a pilot project. People are also worried that there will be too little time to effectively communicate details to potential leaners.

Mr Hayes defended his decision, explaining that the loans were a way of protecting the adult learning budget in the current economic climate.

“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be [here],” he said. “If money was limitless, if funds were available to do everything that we want to do, then we wouldn’t be [here].”

“But given the choices we made, I’m absolutely sure we took the right option.”

Mr Hayes promised that the adult leaners’ budget will remain protected as long as he has responsibility.

I have heard first hand of their fears of loans of up to £4,000 a year”

The minister also said that it was “right” that his department has “taken steps toward” the question of “who should contribute to learning and in what form”.

In response, the shadow minister Gordon Marsden criticised plans by drawing on conversations he has had with learners and staff at FE colleges across England over the past three months

“I have heard first hand of their fears of loans of up to £4,000 a year. It’s not a negligible sum of money. It will act as a major block for countless adults,” Mr Marsden said.

He added: “It’s clear that if these loans come in there has to be a very firm dialogue and debate with all stakeholders and groups concerned. And it’s not clear to me that this has taken place. Not at all.”

The subject of loans was first brought up at the Adult Learners’ Week Policy conference by Will Swann, the director of students at The Open University, in relation to higher education.

Part-time students will be able to access loans for tuition fees for the first time later this year.

Gordon Marsden, Shadow Minister for FE and John Hayes, Minister for FE

The change comes after the government redirected higher education funding from grants to loans, dramatically pushing up fees in the process. Mr Swann welcomed the move, but said that it “of course guarantees nothing”.

When asked by FE Week whether the government has given enough time to make this change, Mr Swann described it as “a little bit hairy”.

The Student Loans Company does not open applications for part-time loans until the end of July, but The Open University already has 30,000 students who have registered for degrees.

“We may face an interesting cash flow problem this year, but we’re working very very closely with the student loans company,” said Mr Swann.

“There is a level of uncertainty that we face at the moment which we haven’t faced since we were founded in 1969,” he added.

The director of students later joked that one unintended consequence of the policy could be that retired people will take advantage of taking out a loan that there is very little chance of them paying back. “I keep my hopes up that way” he quipped.

The critical role adult learning plays in social mobility was referenced in the course of the conference, with biting remarks from Baroness Margaret Sharp of Guilford.

“I don’t think Nick Clegg recognises how important adult education is in social mobility,” said the Liberal Democrat. The backbencher then attacked further education loans: “I cannot understand why we, as a government, why on earth we are pushing forward with loans for level 3.

“I really think that if we are concerned about social mobility, it’s very important that we try to overturn it.”

Will Swann, director of students at The Open University and Baroness Sharp of Guildford

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