William Hague’s recent exhortation for people to stop whinging and ‘work harder’ reminded me of a certain Conservative politician from the 1980s who famously told people to ‘to get on their bike’ and look for work.

The current economic picture bears many resemblances to the heyday of Norman Tebbit; high unemployment, especially among young people, stagnated growth and above all a government out- of-touch with the challenges facing ordinary people.

What after all is the use in asking people to ‘get on their bike’ and ‘work harder’ if at the same time you are restricting their ability to access training and find work?

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in further education where the government has announced plans to make learners over the age of 24, who wish to study for qualifications at A-Level equivalent or above, pay the full cost of their tuition by taking out a loan like students do in higher education.

The government is making an unfortunate habit of not listening to expert advice in key policy areas, but it would be well-advised to study its own research in this area.

Last week it was revealed that just one in 10 people aged 24 and over would definitely undertake a further education course at college if the controversial plans to charge loans are brought in.

The new system, which is scheduled to be introduced from 2013/14, has already succeeded in uniting the sector against it.

A survey conducted by FE Week earlier this month showed that over two-thirds of students, college leaders and staff think ministers should urgently pause or look at abandoning the scheme altogether.

They rightly warn that the sector is ill-prepared for these radical changes and that little thought has been given to the impact that loans will have on students, especially women and those from poorer backgrounds and with learning difficulties.

What is the use in asking people to ‘get on their bike’ and ‘work harder’ if at the same time you are restricting their ability to access training and find work?”

There are also serious concerns over whether the Student Loans Company (SLC) has been given sufficient time to develop the administration of the loans system.

University students not receiving their loans on time are now as much part of the education calendar as pictures of A-level students leaping for joy in August.

So will the government listen to the experts or we are in for another NHS-style PR disaster? So far the signs aren’t looking positive.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) claim that introducing loans will mean that thousands of people “can access learning at a time when grant funding is being prioritised on those who need it most.”

This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence or address the basic question of how people can access learning if they are unable to afford it? The reality of the new system means that learners will have to pay thousands to study.

No matter how much William Hague exhorts people to work harder, it is simply not easy when you face record unemployment and the opportunities to get back into education are being removed or made too expensive.

It is the government that needs to work harder. It needs to give people access to the skills and jobs they need and provide the growth the country needs to start to recover.

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

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