Justice: FE Week campaign wins £1.5m relief for victims of loan scandal

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Almost 600 victims of an FE loans scandal have had £1.5 million worth of debt written off following an FE Week campaign.

For years, adult learners were being forced to repay thousands of pounds for a course they had never completed after their training provider went bust.

Ministers refused to write off their advance learner loans, even if the students couldn’t move on to alternative providers.

It sparked the launch of #SaveOurAdultEducation in 2017 which demanded justice for those affected and led to new legislation, introduced in July 2019, that gave the education secretary powers to clear their debt.

New figures obtained by FE Week through a freedom of information request show that since the law change, 585 learners advanced learner loans at a value of £1,438,767 have been written off.

The students spanned 32 different providers, most of which suddenly went out of business, including John Frank Training, Edudo, MiddletonMurray Group and Progress to Excellence.

One of the victims was Grzegorz Bogdanski, who was being forced to repay almost £6,000. The 37-year-old painter and decorator claimed he was duped into the loan by Edudo, which was subcontracting from West London College before it went into voluntary liquidation in November 2016.

He described the debt as a “stone tied to your leg that you’re dragging all the time” and while he said it was a “massive relief” when his loan was written off, he questioned how the government ever let the situation occur.

“It is disappointing how the government and college dealt with the issue. Nobody wanted to help , even though I contacted them many times. There was no accountability.”

He added: “How can the government hand over this money so easily to the provider when they’re not qualified to do it. The situation was bizarre how easily we could be defrauded.

“I’m just very appreciative and will always be grateful to FE Week for stepping in.”

The saga also resulted in the Education and Skills Funding Agency reviewing its audit framework for loans-only providers and changes were made, including the banning of subcontracting for these providers.

Carpenter Lukasz Pacuk, 38, said he and his family had suffered four years of “never ending” stress as he faced a £4,000 debt with nothing to show for it, as did fellow carpenter Marcin Tryka, 40, who had a £4,500 loan.

Tryka told FE Week of how the government would send him monthly reminder letters that he owed the money. “They were happy to chase us for the money but would not offer us any help,” he said. “It was like someone was stealing from me.”

He said he was stuck in a “vicious cycle” of not being able to gain his qualification or a job as a result.

Tryka added: “I can’t imagine what my life would be like right now if it wasn’t for your newspaper. When we were individual people calling, nobody cared; but as soon as you stepped in the battlefield, it ended so quick. You saved the day, so thank you.”

A DfE spokesperson did not respond to the criticism but said: “No learner should be disadvantaged when issues with their education provider mean they can no longer undertake their course.”

Robert Halfon was skills minister at the time the scandal came to light and backed FE Week’s campaign after he left the post in July 2017.

Reacting to the news that almost 600 people have saved £1.5 million since the law change, the now chair of the education select committee said: “Whilst it was very troubling that hundreds of FE students were unfortunately caught up in this difficult situation, with huge uncertainty about their money, education and future careers, it is fantastic that they are now being released from these debts.

“Congratulations are owed to FE Week for pursuing their campaign and for their contribution to this great outcome.”

Labour’s former shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden was a strong supporter of #SaveOurAdultEducation and hosted its launch event in parliament. He said: “It is great news that #SaveOurAdultEducation has had a fruitful aftermath.” (Read his full article on the debacle here.)