The shadow FE minister, an independent charity and two trade unions have criticised the FE loans policy following the publication of the final Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) and Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) reports.
Gordon Marsden, shadow minister for further education, skills and regional growth, told FE Week: “The EIA adds relatively little to the research that was published previously.
“In fact most of it appears to be derived
from it, and on that basis all the substantial concerns and misgivings that we have about the implications of the research also apply to the assessment.
“It remains the case that neither the research nor the assessment justifies the claims that this is going to be widely accepted by a broad range of learners.”
The scheme – now called “24+ advanced learning loans” – will be introduced next year and will affect all learners aged 24 and above and studying at level 3 or higher.
NIACE’s outstanding concerns about the introduction of loans include not only equality issues around age, disability and gender, but the impact they will have on the learning offer”
Mr Marsden said the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) was trying to spin the findings to show that the policy “will not be such a big deal” next year.
“Well, I’m sorry, but all the evidence suggests that it will be a big deal,” he said.
Learners aged 40 and above would be least likely to take out a loan, according to the final EIA report.
“Most people felt that they would not be put off taking out a 24+ advanced learning loan once they understood the full details,” it said.
“However those aged 40 and over seeking a route back into the labour market were still negative.”
The report also showed that women were marginally less likely to take out a loan, although it later said the difference was “not large enough to be statistically significant”.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) said that it was “concerned” about the impact of the policy both on female and older learners.
Alastair Thomson, principal advocacy officer at NIACE, said: “NIACE’s outstanding concerns about the introduction of loans include not only equality issues around age, disability and gender, but the impact they will have on the learning offer – especially access to HE – the quality of the learning experience and what subjects might be available.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) has also criticised the reports.
Toni Pearce, the union’s vice president (further education), said: “This poorly researched, poorly analysed and much delayed report is yet further proof that the government has not properly prepared themselves or the sector for the introduction of FE fees.
“The report clearly shows that the worst hit by the changes will be women – who make up two-thirds of the affected group – and the over-40s. Yet the report says all is fine with the former and that they’ll merely keep an eye on the latter.”
She described the reports as inadequate and a “box-ticking exercise”.
The RIA, which modelled the impact of the scheme against four other policy decisions, showed that the number of adult learners studying at level 3 and 4 could drop from 359,000 to about 247,000 once the loans were introduced.
It follows market research, carried out by TNS-BMRB, which revealed that one in ten learners would “definitely” take out a loan.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The new loans system will be profoundly unfair and make it harder for people to get the qualifications they need to progress in life.
“The government’s own research shows that the number of learners ‘definitely’ willing to take courses is low – and it has only canvassed the views of people currently in the system.
“Their own budgets have been planned with 20 per cent fewer learners expected under the new system.”
A BIS spokesperson said government funding was being focused on young people without basic skills or taking their first qualifications.
“Access to a loan will ensure no upfront costs for tuition for those aged 24 and over taking qualifications worth an A-Level or higher.”