Confusion reigns over who should pay fees

The Skills Funding Agency (SFA) say colleges are not allowed to fully-fund unemployed learners seeking work unless they are on state benefits.

The guidance contradicts earlier advice, as reported in FE Week.

A member of a popular college email forum has shared an exchange with Nick Chomyk, funding policy development and learner eligibility manager at the SFA (see end of article).

Mr Chomyk describes how his previous advice has now changed, and the original funding requirements “need to be followed.”

Yet in September, Mr Chomyk had said to the forum member: “The individual does not have to be in receipt of a benefit, just unemployed and needs help to get back into work.”

The advice from September was in line with policy updates communicated to SFA staff, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) in August 2011, which said any unemployed learner could be fully-funded provided they are looking for work.

Having sought clarification I was surprised to be told the rules have been changed yet again,”

The advice said: “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 added: “Unemployed status and the need for skills training to help them enter work would be confirmed by the individual in the form of a self-declaration to the college or training organisation.”

FE Week has asked the SFA why the September advice has changed.

A statement from the SFA said: “The Agency’s policy on the funding of unemployed learners has been consistent throughout 2011/12 and is clearly set out in our funding documents, which are communicated to providers.”

The college email forum member says the guidance around fee remission “has been very unclear.”

“Having sought clarification I was surprised to be told the rules have been changed yet again,” they said.

“Colleges and training providers will naturally be very confused as to who should and should not be charged fees, and whether existing learners are no longer eligible for full funding”.

The AoC say they expect the SFA to clarify the guidance later this year.

Julian Gravatt, AoC assistant chief executive, said: “There was some confusion in the summer of last year when guidance was published but then swiftly altered a few short weeks later.

“We understand there are plans at the SFA to clarify these rules and hopefully make them easier to understand for everyone as early as this year.”

He added: “For colleges, fees are a difficult issue and we are keen to provide support where we can.

“However there are times when fees are unavoidable.

“BIS and the  SFA should be aware of occasions when charges must be applied for additional services, or to incentivise deadline meeting, which is normal in procedure as a way to encourage appropriate behaviour.”

Email exchange:

From: Nick Chomyk (SFA)
Sent: 02 February 2012 08:58
To: Forum member
Subject: RE: Funding Eligibility

Hi forum member

No. The rules in the Funding Requirements will need to be followed. However, where you have accepted learners on the basis of the advice below we will accept starts up to the end of December 2011. If you have had any starts based on the information below since then please let me know and I will advise.

Nick Chomyk
Funding Systems Manager

From: Forum member
Sent: 02 February 2012 08:31
To: Nick Chomyk  (SFA)
Subject: FW: Funding Eligibility

Hi Nick

Does the information you provided below still stand?

From: Nick Chomyk (SFA)
Sent: 02 September 2011 09:28
To: Forum member
Subject: RE: Funding Eligibility

The individual does not have to be in receipt of a benefit, just unemployed and needs help to get back into work.
The Funding guidance will be updated in October.

Nick Chomyk
Funding Systems Manager


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  1. Eve Johnson

    Definitely requires a statement from the Agency on how these learners, where fees have been waived under the September guidance, will be dealt with at Audit – it could be a real mess!

  2. Personally, I wouldn’t make any policy changes based on an email from a member of SFA staff. The published guidance states they must be unemployed, in receipt of state benefit and require the skills in order to get into work.

    I hadn’t heard about any changes through my usual peer support channels so it must be something unique to the college grapevine.

    • I agree with Simon. We sought clarification on this issue from our local office and were firmly referred back to the Learner Eligiblity & Contribution Rules V2.1 dated 12 Augusut para 102 and 103 where it states

      “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.”

      The bit in the guidance of interest to us is that learners who are fully funded on the basis that they are on a non JSA/ESA WRAG income benefit, are not employed and have declared that they are doing the course to improve their skills to help find work in the future, CAN be funded to do units and other learning aims. For ACL providers with Adult Skills funding that’s really useful, though I am not sure what is meant by “other learning aims” – can anyone shine a light on this?

      • Yes BUT what happens to the level of benefit issued to an individual after they have signed the “self declaration form”??
        Individuals need tp know they are taking two or three steps back in order to put one step forward, especially when nothing is certain in gaining a skills qualification that may never give a positive contribution to life in a jobs market place with ever decreasing prospects….plus age-ism and perhaps past mental health issues?????????

  3. At Nick’s event on Tuesday, Karl from Tenon discussed this and the feeling in the room (180 MIS managers) was that we couldn’t posssibly have funding clawed back on the basis that we’d fully funded learners who weren’t in receipt of benefit because of the mess around this. Hopefully it will only be a management letter point at worst.
    The almost Stalinist denial of the Agency speaks of an organisation that isn’t fit for purpose, why not just admit the error and we can all move on.

  4. Jon Carr

    Simon is right, this apparent change in policy, although widely publicised by FE Week and on MIS forums, was never confirmed and the guidance remained that to be eligible for fee remission, learners must be unemployed AND on a state benefit. As soon as this was first publicised, I thought it would be inevitable that we’d end up in this situation now with the Skills Funding Agency denying all knowledge of the relaxation in policy, so thankfully we stuck with the published guidance.
    Having said that, I do agree with Steve that the SFA’s (sorry, but I can’t bring myself to use ‘the Agency’ as they prefer) refusal to acknowledge any kind of error by them is almost Stalinist – it wasn’t just any SFA staff member who sent the email stating the rules had been relaxed, it was the ‘learning eligibility’ manager!
    Kind of reminds me of the situation where one the SFA’s documents said 19-23 learners were eligible for a particular type of remission and another said it was 19-24 – but no, this wasn’t an error, both documents were correct!