Universal credit rules hold people back from training, warns report

Universal credit rules are excluding people from training and must be scrapped if the government is serious about its levelling up agenda, according to a new report.

The Association of Colleges has today accused policy-makers of creating an “education vs work” divide.

In a report titled ‘Let Them Learn: Further education colleges’ support for the unemployed’, the membership body warns that those receiving universal credit have obligations to prioritise job searches and take available jobs if able to do so.

This means that they “may be employed in the short term, but are prevented from developing skills that would allow them to get into better-quality, more stable, better paid employment over the longer term”.

In addition, the length of time that people can continue receiving universal credit while undertaking work-focused study has been capped at eight weeks. The government announced recently they would pilot an extension of this to 12 weeks for full-time study, or up to 16 weeks on a skills bootcamp in England.

AoC chief executive David Hughes said the rules mean that those most likely to benefit would have to give up financial support to train and learn, and with no access to other maintenance support, would likely have to forgo any chances of reskilling in order to live, eat and pay bills. 

Government statistics show there were 2.6 million seeking either universal credit or jobseeker’s allowance in April 2021, compared to 1.4 million in March 2020, before the first Covid-19 lockdown.

The AoC’s report says government is rightly talking about the importance of training and retraining to support people and employers following the pandemic with investment in traineeships, apprenticeships and kickstart.

But there “seems to be a mismatch between the levelling up agenda and the employment and jobs strategy”.

The report calls for reform to universal credit rules and for every unemployed person to receive financial support for a course at college “when they need it to get into good local jobs, no matter their starting point and with no impact on their benefits at the end of sentence”.

Also on the list of recommendation is an extension to the new level 3 adult offer under the lifetime skills guarantee, so that it is open to everyone, not just those without any existing level 3 qualifications.

In addition, the AoC wants partnerships with JobCentre Plus to be embedded in new local skills improvement plans mooted in the FE white paper and Skills Bill, which gets its second reading in the House of Lords next week.

Hughes said: “We need a coherent system that spans education and welfare and works for those at risk of long-term unemployment. If we don’t we risk leaving people behind in efforts to boost sought after skills for employers and help combat the impact of the pandemic on jobs and the economy.” 

Senior researcher and policy analyst at Resolution Foundation, Kathleen Henehan added: “A clear and joined-up national strategy is needed, with serious consideration given to removing unhelpful barriers that prevent people from accessing opportunities to learn and train.” 

A government spokesperson said: “Universal credit is designed to help people into work and every claimant receives tailored support from their work coach, including help to build new skills with recent changes made to enable claimants to take part in full-time training for longer. 

“In addition, our multi-billion-pound Plan for Jobs is helping people train and find new opportunities as we push to build back better.”

The government added that universal credit is not designed for those in full time education, but there are some exceptions, including those caring for a child and being in receipt of a disability-related benefit.

Universal credit claimants can also have a “permitted period where a claimant may be allowed to restrict their job search to their previous or qualified job goal, if their work coach deems that there is a reasonable prospect of them securing employment in this field”. 

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