We need huge new initiatives to support new skills and retraining

Writing off stranded learners’ debts is a good start, but there’s more to be done on access to adult education

Writing off stranded learners’ debts is a good start, but there’s more to be done on access to adult education

7 Jan 2022, 7:00

Writing off stranded learners’ debts is a good start, but there’s more to be done on access to adult education, writes Gordon Marsden

It is great news that the #SaveOurAdultEducation campaign, which I was proud to support at its parliamentary launch in February 2017, has had a fruitful aftermath, showing 500 debt write-offs worth almost £1.5 million for the learners concerned.

I think this campaign succeeded because of four things. It was a broad-based campaign ̶ backed by adult and community groups, and others, as well as the FE community. It spoke to common sense and natural justice ̶ that learners should not have to repay a loan for a course when providers, for whatever reason, failed to fulfil their obligation.

It also had the human factor. Around 200 people packed into a Commons committee room on the day of the campaign’s launch. Asim Shaheen, a man in his 40s who was deprived of completing his level 3 hospitality course but left with an £8,000 debt, confronted Robert Halfon, then skills minister, about that injustice. And we all kept it going, with questions in and outside of parliament, and lobbying, until two years later, Robert’s successor, Anne Milton (and all credit to her) announced in July 2019 that government would act on write-off debts.

This campaign must be seen, of course, in the context of the overall problems that advanced learning loans have had since they were introduced to replace grant funding. I visited learning providers and colleges and I spoke to adult learners (many of them women) who had got level 3s with grants, as well as to other people who were contemplating starting them on the new loans system. It became clear to me that taking on debt when they have complex obligations (supporting their own children beyond school, and older family members, for example) worried them more than the traditional cohorts of 16-21-year-olds.

That has been borne out as year after year statistics have shown (and as FE Week, myself and others have consistently pointed out) that at least half of the funding allocation for advanced learner loans has not been taken up. That’s hundreds of millions of pounds ̶ which could have helped fuel so many life chances and opportunities.

The challenges for adult education in the 2020s (of which FE is a vital and central part) have been turbocharged by the consequences of Brexit and the Covid pandemic. There need to be huge new initiatives to support new skills and retraining. This is not just to replace gaps in the service sectors from EU citizens who have left the UK, but also millions of other adults needing new skills, jobs and careers because their current ones have become obsolete or have evolved with the demands of the green economy.

That is why Right To Learn, the group I and others from the Lifelong Learning Commission set up just over a year ago, is campaigning so that government ensures that low-skilled workers don’t just get full protection when they take out advanced learning loans. Government must also make it a top priority for them to be able to get Level 3 and above apprenticeships, and other qualifications, in the first place.

That requires an urgent concentration on promoting levels 1 and 2, as well as traineeships, to disadvantaged adult groups and individuals. This must also include the estimated nine million people lacking basic skills. That needs to happen not just for maths (where the Chancellor made a modest start with the ‘Multiply’ initiative in his October budget) but also for spoken and written English and digital skills.

Such adult learner initiatives would give FE providers major new and life-changing markets and a sense of achievement, as well as contributing to a fairer, healthier and more proactive society. They might even want to try pilot schemes for grants, in which enterprising elected local mayors could participate.

Who knows? It might be an idea for another broad-based and successful campaign for the sector to get involved with in 2022  ̶  #SaveOurAdultEducation 2.0.