The government’s £232m pot of cash for FE loans could be going on courses not aimed at getting people into a job or higher education, FE Week has learned.
The cash was set aside by the Skills Funding Agency to fund provider “loan facilities” as part of the new 24+ advanced learning loans system, launched two months ago.
But FE Week has found loans being used to fund leisure-focussed courses, despite apprenticeship loan applications failing to take off.
Shadow Skills Minister Gordon Marsden has told of his concerns the loans may not be getting directed towards “retraining” and “reskilling”.
“I will be asking the agency to look into the information FE Week has brought to light,” he said.
It comes amid a government review of adult qualifications by Nigel Whitehead, BAE Systems group managing director of programmes and support.
Skills Minister Matthew Hancock told FE Week: “One of my goals in reviewing qualifications has always been to ensure they have a clear line of sight to work.”
He added: “We plan to deliver that through traineeships and there’s no reason that adult qualifications should be any different.”
Among the leisure-focussed courses being advertised with the loan offer is a level three Royal Horticultural Society certificate in horticulture. It covers “practical skills” such as planting and pruning.
It is run at, among others, Bicton College, in Devon, where it is taught on a Monday afternoon.
The college has promoted its 24+ loans courses on Twitter with the hashtag #itsnevertoolate, and also advertises an NCFE certificate in creative craft, for learners to “explore and develop your latent creative potential” every Monday morning.
A 24+ government loan of £940 is needed to enrol, while the horticulture course is £750.
Jenny Tyrrell, head of marketing at Bicton College, said: “The college’s focus is always on enabling individuals to upskill in order to secure employment or move into higher education and we only offer approved courses to our learners.
“Those who have completed courses, whether in agriculture, horticulture, or in numerous other areas, at Bicton College have gone on to build their own businesses, gain employment or achieve career change ambitions.”
She said there was a “very clear skills shortage in areas such as horticulture, and the vast majority of our students leave college into careers or higher education courses of their choice”.
Loans are used to pay course fees for those aged 24+ studying at levels three or four.
Course costs used to be halved between the learner and the government, but are now, in theory, paid in full by the learner.
However, to ensure such courses are free at the point of entry, the government pays fees up-front in the form of a loan for 100 per cent of the costs — in effect doubling the initial outlay from the public purse.
There is no suggestion Bicton, which has a loans facility and bursary allocation of £102,409, has broken any loans rules because there is no official stipulation that loans must be used on courses aimed at getting people jobs or into higher education.
But with more than 3,000 loan applications having been submitted for level three certificates, there is concern providers’ finite loan facilities could be heading away from job-focussed programmes, such as advanced and higher-level apprenticeships.
These have seen a total of just 77 loan applications — compared to an expected figure for 2013/14 of around 25,000.
Mr Marsden said: “The details FE Week has uncovered are indeed worrying, even if they prove to be isolated examples.
“If they are part of a trend in which funding for 24+ loans is not helping to progress reskilling and retraining, then that would be of even more concern.”
A joint statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the agency said: “The value, rigour and relevance of qualifications is currently the subject of a major review being led by Nigel Whitehead as part of government’s drive to make the further education system responsive to the needs of employers and the wider economy.”
Editorial: Loans not meant for leisure
Should limited public funding be used for level three gardening and creative craft courses that are taught for half a day a week — even if the funding is paid back?
You might think yes, but what if the loan funding (or “facilities”) runs out?
This could mean there is nothing left for those wanting to study access to higher education courses or become apprentices.
The stats already indicate that there have been more applications for leisure courses than for apprenticeships.
And with more than 35,000 applications by the end of August — and September likely to be the busiest month for applications — it seems likely the loan funding will indeed be exhausted soon.
But if, like me and seemingly the Skills Minister, too, you think loans should be prioritised for adults wanting to go to university, into work or to do an apprenticeship, then this needs looking into.
The first thing the government should do is provide more detail on who and what loan applications are for.
Providers are screaming out for market analysis as to what is popular, and it would also help establish how significant the leisure course issue is.
From there the sector should come together to look at whether these loans should be directed at specific programmes.
Only then can we ensure funding ends up where it is most needed.
Nick Linford, editor