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


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  1. That “what if” in the first sentence is doing an awful lot of work Nick. There’s no suggestion that we’re anywhere near anything that looks like the facility running out. Also these are Ofqual approved certificates so to suggest that they are purely “leisure” courses is demeaning to the learner who take them. I’m not a believer in this ridiculous utilitarian model of education as you well know, but these are perfectly reasonable qualifications in an area with real skills shortages, so why shouldn’t learners access the funding that’s available?

  2. Nick Robin

    I think you have to be very careful about condemning such courses, as there is a huge demand for qualified Horticulturalists and craft-orientated businesses in rural areas, which represent the majority of the UK landmass. To write them off as “leisure courses” is both condescending and censorious. Unemployment in rural areas is a major issue, and I think Bicton College should be congratulated on their enterprise in giving older people a new opportunity to train into a vibrant rural market – student loans are not all about University or tertiary education, but about letting people choose and enhance their life-skills for their own future employment, including self-employment – after all, they have to repay the money, so they should have choice at the start.

  3. The Institute of Horticulture estimate that the total value of output for the horticulture industry in the UK is £9 billion per annum and provides regular employment for over 37,000 people. As their homepage explains “Many people see horticulture as gardening and horticulturists are therefore gardeners. But that is to take a very limited view of a broad and important industry which is vital to the health and quality of life of our nations.” It is this trap that this article appears to have fallen into.

    This is not an unfamiliar attitude to lifelong learning. We have been here before with ‘cake decorating’, ‘floristry’ and ‘Pilates’. Again these are areas where thousands of micro and small businesses thrive and are a vibrant part of our economy. As we have said before – you can’t tell the motivation of a learner by looking at the title of a course; there is no firm line between ‘leisure’ and ‘vocational’ courses.

    There is clearly a role for good information, advice and guidance to help adults make the right choices. However if one of the aims of 24+ Advanced Learning Loans is to encourage individuals to make a greater investment in their own learning, then we should not be too hasty in our judgments of whether the learning they have chosen to invest in is worthwhile.

    The move to look at learner outcomes might help inform views on whether particular courses are helping people into employment or onto further learning. Whether or not learning leads to a job it results in many wider benefits, including confidence and self esteem, which support people’s employability skills. We should be celebrating the fact that many people recognise the value of choosing to invest in their own learning in this way.

  4. Country Bumpkin

    This is a non-story driven by a blinkered view of what happens outside London. If you had gathered views from the learners as to what their intentions are by studying such courses, then that might allow some reasoned judgements. Shoddy jounalism.

  5. In related news, it appears that all of the RHS L3 Certs have a max Loan value of £1,246 (as they’re PWF E) so these learners are actually getting a bargain if it’s only £750 and that won’t be far off the co-funding the courses generated last year (depending on provider factor, but this is an Ag college we’re talking about), so it’s no more of a “drain” on resources than it’s ever been… Also if it’s anything like our smaller L3 Certs I suspect they’ll get people just paying, rather than getting a Loan for a relatively small amount.
    Also, it’s not the fault of vocational courses that Apps aren’t being taken up, it’s the fault of Loans for Apps being a bloody stupid idea…

  6. Martin West

    It is the SFA that decide what courses are funded and it is they who have included such courses for 24+ loans.
    Providers do advertise the courses they provide and if an applicant is not eligible for agency funding full cost fees apply.
    I think you should be making this point to the Agencies and not the Providers.
    Sorry Nick poor journalism you missed the point.

  7. This FE week story hits the point and hits it well. It exposes the nonsense divide between so-called leisure and work-related courses. It shows the government’s policies coming apart at the seams. As Steve Hewitt suggests, it is a folly to try and distinguish between work-related and leisure courses. Labour tried and failed woefully, as did the Tories before them with Schedule 2 of the 1992 FHE Act, and the Coalition has fallen into the same trap in the name of austerity. Yes, you have to make some judgments, attempt to draw some distinction for funding priorities. But such decisions have to left to the college, individuals and local agreements involving the whole community. All the rest is red tape and bureaucracy.
    Martin West hits a key point when he says: “It is the SFA that decide what courses are funded and it is they who have included such courses for 24+ loans.” The SFA’s function here is to do the bidding of government paymasters first, to ration resources and put government priorities before locally identified needs or priorities. Deep down, for all their sweet talking, ministers do not trust colleges and other providers to get it right.
    And your point, Nick, is spot on when you ask in your editorial: what happens when the money runs out? The perverse logic of government policy that sees private or work-based spending as “investment” and public or leisure-orientated spending as a drain on resources inevitably means that the limited cash will run out well before the skills needs of the UK are met. It is short-termism.
    There is no one Royal work-based road to skills heaven; if education and training are really worth investing in, then we should invest properly, not cut corners and redefine what is valid and what is not simply to suit short-term economic expediency.

  8. This FE Week piece is a storming illustration of the prejudice and lack of understanding that is often directed at land based qualifications. At Bicton College in Devon we are proud of the real difference we make to peoples lives, providing new skills and work related qualifications across a wide range of land based industries. We are grateful for the commentators that have made some excellent rebuttal points in the remarks above.

    To suggest that horticulture is a leisure subject misses the point that this industry needs an estimated 11,000 new entrants in the next decade to satisfy skills needs within the sector. Well trained horticulturalists can and do earn good money in landscape design, grounds and gardens maintenance, crop production, plant breeding and in the South West are in as much demand as a good plumber!

    The slur directed at creative craft courses is also misdirected and obviously carelessly made. We support adult students, often women returners, whose ceative talents are released and inspired by our passionate teachers. Many go on to start their own businesses and make a worthwhile contribution to the rural economy.

    Bicton offers courses that are valued by people living and working in the rural economy. Last year our work was inspected by Ofsted as ‘good’ in all graded areas. We don’t make the rules regarding fundable qualifications or loans. We just follow them to provide all our learners with the best opportunities that we can. We don’t discriminate: we cater for young and mature learners alike, men and women, though more women returners and career changers tend to study creative crafts. The vast majority of our learners across all subjects progress into useful careers.

    The case study was prompted by a prejudice towards land-based qualifications, Nick Linford’s Tweet seems to imply it was triggered by a throwaway remark made by a Principal in a meeting of Colleges. One would think that serious journalism would warrant a little more careful research!

    Try this website for some serious minded insights:

  9. Again, FE Week – Nick – looking for a story where none exists. Exactly what is the issue here? Loans being used for courses you define condecendingly as ‘leisure’, when many can and clearly are being used as a route to some form of work. Even if they do not lead to work, again, what is the issue?

    Education is not purely driven by a utilitarian model of work-focus, or at least it shouldn’t be.

    If you don’t like it, campaign for a change of rules.

    While we’re at it, have a go at the other providers who own awarding bodies, and shame the actual derisory minimum wage levels.

  10. This article reinforces misconceptions that are damaging to horticulture, implying that it isn’t a skilled career and is only a hobby or leisure activity. As I work in the PR team at the RHS, you probably think that I would say that RHS qualifications are highly valued within the horticultural industry, but they undoubtedly are. They are used by the National Trust for their Horticultural Academy students and by RBG Kew as part of their academic studies for their horticultural apprenticeship students. In addition, over half the students who enrol on Level 3 RHS Certificate at RHS Qualification Centres, do so to further their careers.

    Only a few months ago we launched an industry wide report to Government, called Horticulture Matters, which highlighted that more than 70% of horticultural businesses can’t fill skilled vacancies, nearly 20% are forced to recruit overseas and almost 70% say career entrants are inadequately prepared for work.

    The shortage of horticultural skills impacts on every level of the industry; from the scientist researching plant diseases to the crop grower seeking a more sustainable secure harvest and the horticulturist advising architects on biodiversity in our cities.

    Colleges shouldn’t be shamed for advertising 24+ FE Loans with the RHS Level 3 Certificate as we urgently need to encourage new talent into the horticultural industry. One of the great things about RHS Qualifications is that they are accessible to all, from the amateur to the professional, what needs to be carefully considered is the reason behind the application for the 24+ loan scheme rather than this particular qualification itself.

  11. Non story. As a garden professional myself I’d have been very interested to build on the success of my business with the skills and knowledge the RHS courses provide.
    clearly a disappointing uptake in apprenticeships should surely beg the question, why are apprenticeships not as popular… ?
    More time and energy directed toward that question would surely be a better use of resource.

  12. Martin Allen

    To quote the Bicton College website about the RHS level 3 practical course
    “Students who have completed this course go onto RHS level 3 theory certificates, or become self-employed gardeners and work for other organisations in a gardening role, plus working in plant nurseries and garden centres in a supervisory role.”

    There is no mention of it being a “leisure-focussed” course. It took a couple of minutes for me to check that.