FE loans must work for disadvantaged learners

We are all acutely aware of how tough things are economically and therefore appreciate that Government spending must go towards helping the most underprivileged first.

In Higher Education, loans have been part of the system for over a decade now and while the jury is still out on the long-term financial returns of this system, it was perhaps inevitable that loans would soon be part of Further Education too. In some ways, it is heartening that for once FE and HE are being treated similarly. But as in HE, we need to be alive to how far this system will really benefit and support those who need it most.

At City & Guilds, we welcome the fact that learners will only be required to start making repayments once they are earning £21,000 or more but what we really want to see tested and evaluated is the impact loans, once introduced, have on prospective learners.

It has never been more important to ensure we are building up the high level skills of our society and we need those skills in a range of sectors, but particularly STEM disciplines.

These are the more expensive subjects to deliver. It would be a travesty if the amount required in a loan impedes the take up of these skills at a time when our economy needs them most.

There is no such thing as ‘a job for life’ any more and we no longer have just one career over a lifetime”

Secondly, when FE loans are introduced next year, we must ensure their introduction does not disproportionately disadvantage older learners and inhibit those over the age of 24 from participating in FE. According to BIS’ recent research, Attitudes to FE Loans, older learners seem to be more reticent to take on debt.

This is essential feedback for us to note and respond to. The way we view a ‘career’ is changing. There is no such thing as ‘a job for life’ any more and we no longer have just one career over a lifetime, but several.

Therefore, access to education and training must evolve to support these changing work patterns.

BT has previously commented that 24 is too young as a cut-off age. Here, I tend to agree as how many of us knew what we wanted to do when leaving school or by our early twenties? Indeed, should age determine your decision to participate in education at all?

One thought we have had at City & Guilds is around how we can make the introduction of FE loans fully comparable to the funding system in HE and also to what happens in schools.

16-18 year olds who stay in school are funded to do their A levels. Encouraging young people to stay on in education and training is an absolute priority as Raising the Participation Age becomes a reality – but some will not be ready to do Level 3 qualifications by 18.

Some will want to go straight into a more work-focused training environment and may take far longer to achieve Level 3. Perhaps a more equitable system would be for all individuals to receive funding up to and including Level 3, regardless of age, with loans made available to help those who want to study at Levels 4 and above.

This would make FE more comparable with other parts of the education system – something we have all been building towards for many years now.

Going forward, we want to work with others in the system to ensure that FE loans work for everyone involved – Government, employers, providers and, most of all, individual learners. To do this, we need to build a shared understanding of how FE and HE loans will work together and we all need to help inform the guidance for those learners moving from FE into HE.

As the BIS commissioned research into FE loans shows us – if we do not come up with some agreed messages quickly, damage can be done. We need to ensure that prospective learners are equipped with all the information they need to make informed, well judged decisions about the funding available for their education and training journey.

Chris Jones, CEO and
Director General, City & Guilds

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