Leaked Skills Funding Agency email reveals more late policy changes, but will colleges refund the fees?

Colleges will for the first time be able to claim full funding for unemployed learners not on a state benefit, following a policy update by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). Leaked email correspondence between SFA staff confirms the changes in late August 2011.

The following statement was sent out to SFA staff: “Colleges and training organisations have the discretion to fully fund individuals who are unemployed and need skills training to help them enter work.

“It is recognised that this discretion is mainly for those in direct receipt of a state benefit, but could also apply to other individuals who are unemployed and need skills training to help them enter work.” It later adds: “Unemployed status and the need for skills training to help them enter work would be confirmed by the individual in theform of a self-declaration to the college or training organisation.”

When FE Week contacted the SFA they confirmed that the changes have been communicated to the Association of Colleges and Association of Employment and Learning Providers, stating: “Following discussion with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the position was clarified with regard to provider discretion to fully fund skills training to unemployed individuals”

It just seems wrong that we’re taking from the treasury and taking from learners as well.”

Adrian Cottrell, Director of Finance and Corporate Services at Canterbury College, said: “It’s good news for learners, but it’s very late in the day to make such profound changes.

“A lot of colleges will find that they’ve already filled courses and that the change comes a bit too late for them.”

Toni Pearce, Vice President for Further Education (FE) in the NUS, added: “It is welcome that the SFA has finally seen sense and done the right thing”

The timing of the policy change means many eligible learners will have already paid a tuition fee. A spokesperson from the SFA said:

“The decision to collect or waive fees for unemployed people looking for work is at the discretion of the college or training organisation.”

A spokesperson from the AoC said: “As autonomous bodies it is up to our member colleges individually to determine their fees policy – this applies to the refunds issue too.”

Mr Cottrell said Canterbury College would be looking to refund learners, adding: “It just seems wrong that we’re taking from the treasury and taking from learners as well.”

“Otherwise you might get a situation where we don’t charge learners going forward, now that we’ve got the concession, and end up retaining fees from learners who enrolled before the concession was granted – and we can’t have that situation.”

Miss Pearce said it would be unfair if some learners didn’t have their tuition fees returned to them.

“Those learners who have already paid out of their own pocket for the opportunity to learn, having been told the Government would not fund them, will now not be eligible for a refund is a clear injustice and needs a rethink,” she said.



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14 Comments

  1. We placed adverts in the paper, printed posters and printed leaflets to put in our prospectus in an attempt to achieve our learner targets following the last announcement. Is the SFA now going to expect us to do that again?

    If I’m honest, I don’t think many unemployed people who are not on a benefit would’ve paid full fee for their course. It’s far more likely that they just wouldn’t have enrolled at all.

    They really should’ve sorted this out a lot earlier. They’ve cut the funding for most providers and reduced the SLN rate meaning we have to recruit more learners to achieve the same funding and yet we have to spend more money on advertising changes to fee remission eligibility because they can’t make their minds up.

    And what happened to “those who can pay, will pay”? The learner may be unemployed but have thousands in the bank!

  2. Eugene Greco

    In the absence of a decent, clear, well thought through policy…. just make it up as you go along.
    This is making a nonsense of providers’ planning and marketing efforts, not to mention the waste associated with it.
    I had thought the SFA’s credibility couldn’t get any lower.
    When will BIS wake up and just give the money to local Councils to distribute and save the money wasted on the pointless SFA?

  3. The changes to eligibility was incredibly late for many organisations and provided for an already complex entitlement structure to be further complicated. Many adults who enrolled on programmes prior to the announcement of the changes, who had paid full fees, could may well be sat in classrooms with other adults who paid 50% fees, who were on the same type of benefits. This gives rise to a mirroring of the holiday “round the pool” conversation of who got the best deal. However, unlike the holiday scenario, colleges will be inundated for return of fees collected. This puts further strain on an already strained system, not least of which is due to the additional burden of administering the bursary scheme.

  4. http://readingroom.lsc.gov.uk/SFA/LearnerEligibilityandContributionRules_2011_12_12Aug2011__June_revision_V2.1.pdf

    aug 12th guidance published:
    Note not saying anything about those _not_ on benefits, rather that benefits that _infer_ that a self-declaration about unemployed status is credible.

    102 The Agency recognises that there are unemployed individuals who are in receipt of a state benefit (other than JSA or ESA (WRAG)), who want to enter employment and need skills training to do so. For 2011/12, at the discretion of the provider, they will be eligible for full funding for units and other learning aims that will help them enter employment.

    103 These individuals will need to confirm that they are in receipt of a state benefit and they want to enter employment. This can be done using a self-declaration form to confirm that they are part of this eligible group, as it is recognised that more formal evidence would be difficult to obtain in a timely and cost effective manner.

    At our college we have interpreted the rulings, as they are not 100% clear, as allowing unemployed learners to join vocational accredited programmes (including units, as per other changes) at level 1, 2 and 3 (so excluding A-levels of Access to HE, for example), IF they receive the benefits that would have covered them last year (ie: IS, contrib ESA; HB; CTC; WTC [for named person on zero stated income with household income under £15,275]).

    Holes in the patchwork backtracking? ESOL entry 1, 2 & 3; vulnerable learners (ALDD) 19-25; 19+ asylum seekers.

    So, I feel our ‘discretion’ is meeting the max implied by the ‘rules’, and that other colleges may, as this is all ‘from within current funding'[!], within their rights to do _less_.

    This is all, of course, subject to change: personally I’d like more clarity and an explanation of how in a ‘cuts’ environment we are expected to do this ‘within current funding’ without using our ‘discretion’ to say ‘No’ to students. Like a lot of current ‘flexible’ ‘self-determining’ changes, this looks like giving us rope to hang ourselves, with the ire of the public [mis]directed onto FE colleges (with HE the ‘big society’ changes detrimental nature are even starker).

    • additional note to my post, another interpretation of intent qua the ‘vague’ ruling: we also are saying ‘and are seeking training in a new area to that in which they were previously trained (if anything)’ (eg, if done L2 beauty can’t claim this waiver for L2 nails; if done L3 art can claim it for L2 plumbing…).

  5. Has anyone told Job Centre Plus not to take away JSA from learners who get free training in order to secure them a job. Our local JC+ seems to have got it in their mind that a 12 hour per week course is full time and therefore the learner can’t have JSA. So now they’ve got a free course but are not being supported to gain a job, even though they are improving their chances of doing so by doing the training. Crazy!

    • Unfortunately, at present, and under the previous government, ‘availability for work’ trumps ‘getting proper education’. Short-term this = lower unemployment stats; medium term sees more returning to unemployment after taking cruddy inappropriate work that often falls through; long term = lower skilled workforce as a whole + increased mortgage defaults etc. However, it is, as I see it, even worse than TonyB suggests, as it is a 16-hour rule, post 19, not a 12-hour rule [which is for child benefit?]. Having said that, the local office has been more helpful than in the past to our students.

      On the 16-hr rule: I have dug around in the DMG at:
      http://www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/specialist-guides/decision-makers-guide/

      Vol 4 has passages saying that over 12 hrs is full time, but it is specifically related to 16-19 (and 19-21 in continuing education) on FE programmes, and references the child benefit rules as a source.

      However, in Chapter 30 (Vol 6, amended 28 June 2009) it refers to post-19 students explicitly and in there refers, as before, to a 16 hr rule.

      To quote:

      Student aged 19 or over – England and Wales 30148

      A person other than one in receipt of a training allowance or a qualifying young person or child under specified legislation aged 19 or over but under pension age, is a F/T student if they are

      1. attending a F/T course of study which is not funded in whole or in part by the Learning and Skills Council for England or the Welsh Ministers or

      2. undertaking a course of study which

      2.1 is wholly or partly funded by the Learning and Skills Council for England or the Welsh Ministers and

      2.2 involves more than 16 guided learning hours per week (seven days) as stated

      2.2.a in England, in the student’s signed learning agreement

      2.2.b in Wales, in a document signed on behalf of the college. 1 SS CB Act 92, s 142; 2 JSA Regs, reg 1(3)

      Note: If a student attends more than one course the number of guided learning hours should be aggregated.

      Note the AND between 2.1 and 2.2, this is not an either/or.

      Thus, where students are doing hours that are arranged as under 16
      the local benefits office would seem to be, as I suspected, in error when they refuse benefits just because we call a course full-time – it is, for benefits purposes, entirely dependent upon the hours of study.

      Further parts of Chapter 30 are also relevant:

      30171

      Educational establishments may still classify courses or may be able to give an opinion on their nature. Accept evidence from the educational establishment as conclusive unless there is strong relevant evidence to the contrary.

      The DM should consider other evidence, including

      1. the type of qualification aimed for
      2. the number of hours a week normally required for successful completion of the course, including
      2.1 supervised study
      2.2 unsupervised study
      2.3 homework
      2.4 other work carried out on or off the college premises

      3. the claimant’s own hours of attendance and recommended hours of private study

      4. the length of time normally required for successful completion of the course (for example three years)

      5. how long the claimant will take to complete the course

      6. how the course is funded

      7. the course classification for other purposes, for example, grant or student loan awards

      8. how the same course has been classified by the college in the past

      and also useful, as this has been practise in the past:

      30178

      A course may be designed for students to attend as and when they can. With such a course the DM should consider what is actually happening. If the course is F/T it is of no consequence that the student could have attended it P/T.

      ….
      Now, as I see it, this gives us grounds to approach the benefits and
      strongly advocate that they are in error simply calling all students on full-time courses Full Time under there rules. Most will be, but on an individual basis it should be allowed to deem a student who is studying under 16 hours a week as qualifying for JSA.

      As 30171 section 2 makes clear, the college is _obliged to factor in more than just GLH_, but if by arrangement an individual could feasibly acheive the programme under 16 hrs / week, then I see no argument the DM can legitimately use to deny JSA, so long as the student is willing to sign the usual agreements at the benefits office regarding a clash between course and potential work.

      An additional point, under these rules it is possible to argue that some of our students may be doing over 21 hours (Travel / some Access students, as a matter of course, perhaps some other individuals here and there). This would allow at least some students to claim Council Tax Benefit, which has a 21 hour rule attached!

      [apologies for no para breaks in these comments, they are not supported]

      • Gloss on the above – on average there will be few (but some, post 19) students legitimately under 16hrs / wk under these rules. Clear exceptions: eg: student with L2 dip in Carpentry, wanting to now study L2 dip in Brickwork (the 2 share units, eg health & safety, that do not need to be completed twice, thus lowering the GLH and thus the overall included hours, potentially sufficiently to come in under 16).

  6. Sandra Linford

    Well I think it is a move in the right direction as it demonstrates a commitment to acknowledging that education/ training is a way for the unemployed to get jobs rather than just blaming them ; seeing them as shirkers and not providing any mechanism to get out of their unemployed rut. One can only hope that colleges are committed to a value system which endorses supporting the unemployed so that the colleges cough up without too many ifs and buts and not too late for next year if they have been too late for this one. Term has only just started so there may be some hope still for this year … or a january intake ?

    • Much of this is academic, unfortunately, as over-19 funded places have been capped at lower levels than usual, leaving only well-off institutions (which tend to be in better off areas with less [but not no] need) able to consider ‘unfunded’ places, except with higher fee that attract no waivers at all.
      I would, personally, applaud measures to ‘acknowledg[e] that education/ training is a way for the unemployed to get jobs rather than just blaming them’. I am not sure that the current ones, hiving responsibility onto institutions whilst under-funding them, will really achieve that: they may just make the govt look better and shift ‘blame’ to colleges.
      However, I would be happy to be wrong about that.

  7. Allan Lewis

    I note the reference to colleges – wht about the provate providers who are faced with the same learners and issues? For some, which already receive reduced funding due to their sub-contracting arrangements this might represent a real opportunity to improve delivery and quality.