Maintenance loans are everywhere in higher education, so why aren’t they available for those in technical education, asks Mark Corney.

The three great challenges for education policy as I seem them are increasing productivity, extending social mobility, and enhancing the skills base of the resident population as recruitment of EU workers is restricted due to Brexit.

The natural order of things is to accept that higher education can make a significant contribution to these challenges. The problem is that policy makers fail to explain the most basic of reasons why people can and cannot enter higher education.

Eighteen is the peak year for applications to, and acceptances from, higher education at universities and colleges. An estimated 37 per cent of 18-year-olds in England applied to start higher education this September, and acceptance numbers could beat the record of 31.3 per cent set a year ago.

However, the number of initial entrants into higher education tails off significantly by 20, from 173,000 at 18 to 23,500 two years later. Crucially, more than 95 per cent of under-21-year-olds in higher education enrol on full-time courses.

What makes full-time higher education possible is access to maintenance loans

But what makes full-time higher education possible is access to maintenance loans. From this September, all maintenance support for full-time students took the form of loans, at a cash cost of £5bn per year.

If maintenance loans weren’t available, the contribution of full-time HE to social mobility, skills development and productivity would cease before freshers’ week even began. Full-time HE students don’t learn on fresh air; they need a bed, food and water!

Meanwhile, participation in part-time higher education has been in decline for a decade. To expand participation, including by those in employment, the Cameron government announced the introduction of maintenance loans from 2018/19, with a planned cost of £0.6bn by 2020/21.

Maintenance loans are everywhere in higher education.

Recently, the Sainsbury Review explained how technical education could contribute to increasing productivity, enhancing social mobility and reducing youth unemployment.

Yet the obvious question is this: will technical education, outside of apprenticeships, be able to make a significant contribution to these challenges without a comprehensive system of full-time and part-time maintenance loans?

Politics is the art of possible

What is a necessity for higher education is surely also one for technical education.

Maintenance loans should be available to students on full-time and part-time technical education courses at levels four and five.

In addition, fee and maintenance loans for technical education at these levels should be available from 18 rather than 19, in line with higher education.

Politics is the art of the possible

Lord Sainsbury argued that the financial rates of return to individuals and the benefits to the wider economy of higher-level technical education will be greater than from many traditional degrees. If this is the case, the Treasury should be prepared to back fee and maintenance loans for those in level four and five technical education.

Maintenance loans are not required, however, for 16- to 19-year-olds on full-time courses up to level three, as support takes the form of grant-based means-tested child benefit, child tax credit and bursaries. The cost of provision is fully funded and fee-loans, rightly, do not apply.

This leaves level three technical education for 19-year-olds and over. Fee loans at level three are already available; maintenance loans should be available as well.

Politics is the art of the possible. Loans are so much easier to sell to the Treasury than grants – especially when the fiscal deficit remains at £55bn and the national debt continues to rise – and getting the chancellor to agree at least to maintenance loans for technical education would be a good starting point.

The Autumn Statement on Wednesday 23 November is the perfect opportunity for the May government to signal the introduction of 18+ fee and maintenance loans for full-time and part-time technical education.

If maintenance loans for technical education increases participation, the case can be made later in parliament – or in manifestos prepared for an early general election – to extend them to other areas of ‘adult’ further education.

Mark Corney is a policy consultant

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