National day of action united FE against cuts and barriers to skills

After giving strong opinions on a comedian’s individual tax affairs, but refusing to be drawn into the individual tax affairs of Conservative Party donors, the Prime Minister returned to safer ground this week and launched an attack on the UK’s welfare entitlement culture.

As well as announcing plans to cut housing benefits for people aged under-25, he attacked the previous government for ‘trapping’ people in a benefits system that actively discouraged them from wanting to work.

On the day of the Prime Minister’s keynote speech, the Daily Telegraph reported that there were 23 applications for each job vacancy.

Demonising people who are out of work as feckless might score the Prime Minister some political points, but government policy is doing very little to help the huge numbers of unemployed people off benefits and back into work.

Furthermore, government policy is restricting access to education and training. As well as swingeing cuts across further and higher education, people over the age of 24 wishing to take A-level equivalent qualifications will see the cost of their course double from 2013, forcing them to take out loans to pay for the full cost of their college tuition.

This new FE loans system emulates the worst aspects of the government’s higher education funding reforms and will, in all likelihood, increase the number of benefit claimants.

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that many within FE have united against it. Last Friday staff and students from colleges across England lobbied their MPs as part of a national day of action against the plans.

The Prime Minister can talk all he likes about reducing welfare entitlement, but how will erecting punitive financial barriers to study encourage people to get off benefits?

The government’s initial assessment on the impact of the new system predicted a 20 per cent drop in the numnber of learners aged 24 or more. However, the latest assessment suggests that ministers now expect a 45 per cent drop, which means there will be more than 100,000 fewer students in our colleges by 2014.

This is a quite astonishing number and will result in course closures, job losses and vastly diminished opportunities for adults who need a second chance in education. Colleges are quite simply not ready or able to absorb a reduction in student numbers on this scale.

It is essential that the government, in light of its own shocking assessment, halts the plans and looks again at the impact they will have on institutions and learner numbers.

The Prime Minister can talk all he likes about reducing welfare entitlement, but how will erecting punitive financial barriers to study encourage people to get off benefits?

It is policies like FE loans that are really ‘trapping’ people and stopping them from getting the skills they need to find jobs.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

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