Ministers are being urged to bring forward a policy change allowing adults to take level 3 qualifications for free even if they already hold one, as leaders predict a “massive underspend” due to lack of demand.
It comes as most mayoral combined authorities confirm they will also roll out the extension of the policy, funded through the national skills fund, from April 2022.
Since April 2021, any adult aged 19 and over who does not already have a level 3 qualification or higher has been allowed to access hundreds of fully funded level 3 courses. It is backed with an initial £95 million and is part of the prime minister’s flagship lifetime skills guarantee.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi last month announced an extension to the scheme: from April 2022, anyone who earns below the national living wage or is unemployed will be able to access the courses for free “regardless of any prior qualifications”.
It means low earners and the unemployed can take a level 3 qualification for free even they already hold A-levels.
Sector leaders have lobbied for this change all year and say it will be critical to tackle skills shortages. But they question why it can’t be rolled out sooner.
Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “We would like to see the policy implemented as soon as possible. There is no good reason to wait until April 2022.”
Shadow FE and skills minister Toby Perkins added: “Britain faces skills shortages now, not from April next year, and it’s extraordinary that having delayed so long already, the government only plan to change course months into the future.”
The Department for Education defended the delay, insisting it is “right” that the sector is given time to prepare for this “important eligibility expansion”.
Sector leaders have claimed victory over the policy change. They want government to go further and allow all adults access to the free courses whatever their prior achievement level, as many will need to retrain to find new jobs post-Covid-19.
FE Week understands there has been lower-than-expected take-up of the current scheme, which could have partly been the government’s motivation behind the removal of the first-ness element.
Board minutes for the Greater London Authority have already warned that a number of colleges and training providers in the capital London have rejected the opportunity to receive funding for the government’s new level 3 adult offer, as reported by FE Week in July.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, also said he was “worried” earlier this year that there would be a slow start to the new flagship level 3 adult offer owing to the restrictive eligibility rules.
Hughes welcomed the widening of the policy but warned employers are “crying out for people with level 3 skills, and yet too many adults are unable to access free training because they already have a level 3 which does not match the job needs”.
The DfE has refused to share figures showing the number of people signing up to the level 3 adult offer, despite repeated requests from FE Week.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, told FE Week he anticipates a “massive underspend of the national skills fund this year” because of its “inflexibility”.
However, he welcomed the DfE’s move to only allow repeat level 3s to low earners and the unemployed as this will help avoid “deadweight costs”.
“The fact this flexibility is only being granted to the lower paid and those in receipt of unemployment benefits should help mitigate the obvious risks of this turning into yet another publicly funded skills initiative for the sharp-elbowed middle class who are already well endowed with skills and qualifications,” he said.
Former DfE director of FE funding Sue Pember, who now leads adult education network HOLEX, said she “cautiously welcomes this new initiative”, warning there is a risk it could now be “gamed”.
“For many adults whose previous qualification is now not relevant, it will be very helpful in getting them a new job in a new vocational area. However, with no new funding there is a risk that this new client group displaces the adults who do not have a qualification,” she added.
“There is also a risk that the initiative will be gamed by providers who will go for low-hanging fruit and mass recruitment of those who already have a job and already have a level 3 or higher qualification. It will need careful management to ensure this does not become a deadweight programme.”
Funding for the level 3 adult offer is distributed nationally by the Education and Skills Funding Agency but a chunk is handed to the ten mayoral combined authorities with devolved adult education budgets to distribute in their areas.
London said it already has this policy extension in place, and four of the other authorities – West Yorkshire, Liverpool, Greater Manchester, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – confirmed they will follow the ESFA’s lead in introducing it in April 2022.
Two others – Tees Valley and the West Midlands – said they were considering the change and will make a decision in due course. The remaining three areas – Sheffield City Region, North of Tyne and the West of England – did not respond at the time of going to press.