From education to employment

Cost of Learning: How the sector is stepping up to the ongoing crisis

Michael Lemin

After presenting on cost of living at this year’s Association of Colleges Conference, Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at the educational charity and leader in technical and vocational learning NCFE, discusses the role FE is playing in supporting local communities across the country. 

It was clear from the outset that the cost of living crisis was going to be one of the most hotly discussed topics at the Association of Colleges (AoC) Conference – how could it not? Learners, parents, employers, and colleges themselves currently share both similar and unique concerns around how cost is going to impact on lifelong education and the future of work.

Learners have raised concerns regarding paying for meals and travel, which may result in a drop off in participation levels. Parents are feeling the pressure when managing household costs, and may even lose their benefits when their 16-18 year old children choose to embark on an apprenticeship or go into learning rather than work.

For employers and SMEs in particular, they’re facing stark choices indeed – wages and utilities may be prioritised over training, and work placements may come to be seen as an unnecessary expense.

That’s why we felt it was important to host a truly collaborative session, bringing together the voices of different college leaders and exploring the options for support that are out there. For those that couldn’t attend the conference, I wanted to breakdown some of the key recommendations that emerged.

Support with transport

There are various transport support schemes that learners may be eligible for, such as discounted travel passes. For example, Greater Manchester provides free travel for 16–18 year olds. However, sometimes colleges may have to take responsibility for discounted travel themselves, if there isn’t already a scheme put in place by local councils, and actively seeking solutions so learners can continue to attend.

These travel schemes may also only be accessible depending on your proximity to cities or towns, so those learners who live in remote areas may not have the same benefits. However, it’s always worth researching out to see what options are available.

One attendee at the conference shared with us how a group of young people at their college are lobbying on their own behalf for free or reduced transport. It’s not something that should have to happen, but it’s a great example of learners taking things into their own hands.

Options for flexible study

Where learners are struggling to find the means to physically attend lessons, can we provide flexibility through delivery? For example, some colleges are using digital technology to conduct certain meetings remotely (which many of us will be used to from our experiences during the pandemic), or even provide learners with options for blended and independent study, enabling them to fit studies around part-time work and other responsibilities.

I know one college is also currently trialling a four-day working week and is physically closed on a Friday for students to engage with self-directed learning for home. The intention here is that this cuts costs for the college but is also one less day a week where learners need to pay for transport.

The idea of a four-day week stimulated discussion in the room at the conference with several colleagues saying they would have concerns about this idea due to the wide-ranging role that colleges currently play in the wellbeing of their students. Colleges are not just buildings that students use to access education – they also act as safe and warm refuges for vulnerable individuals, so removing access to this one day a week could have a negative impact on some learners.

Direct financial support

Another way to support learners is providing them with awareness of the resources that are available to them financially – as well as supporting them with applications required to receive this funding.

Hardship funding is usually contextual to the college and centres around locally accessible funds. Every locality is different with little standardisation – in Newcastle, for example, there’s the Prince’s Trust and the Greggs Foundation.

Though they vary from region to region, there are tools to find information about local grants, like the one on the turn2us website. There are also national schemes, such as the 19+ Discretionary Learner Support Fund, which provide financial support through the Education and Skills Funding Agency for learners in hardship.

At the conference, a representative from Black Bullion discussed the importance of young people having sound financial awareness and knowing what support is available and how to access it.

For example, there are Child Trust Funds for any child born between 2002 and 2011. These accounts are now maturing as their beneficiaries are turning 18 – yet millions of pounds of these funds go unclaimed because young people aren’t aware that they exist.

Signposting and resource sharing

Effective signposting and resource sharing is another important way that colleges can support learners. Having knowledge and understanding of the support networks within your local area means that you can point learners – no matter their circumstances – in the right direction to receive help.

Organisations such as Mind, Citizens Advice, and National Energy Action are able to provide support and resources in important areas, including mental health, financial advice and benefit eligibility. Again, learners may need to be supported when it comes to completing charity and grant applications.

One college leader who contributed to the conference session was supporting students through an entrepreneurship programme, which provides coaching, mentoring, support and business education to learners, with Adult education budget (AEB) funded qualifications. Whilst this is a longer-term solution, it gives learners a positive focus and provides an end goal that will help them support themselves.

Encourage college initiatives

It’s clear to see that colleges are hugely valuable anchor institutions within their communities. The power of community and college initiatives, and the concepts of volunteering, sharing, and working together, are so important at this time and provide a platform for positive and sustainable impact on local communities.

Andrew Cox from London South East Colleges joined the conference session to discuss the Good for ME Good for FE (GfMGfFE) initiative, where over 140 colleges and more than 50 local partnerships with charitable and corporate organisations have come together over that last two years to raise more than £2 million in social value through volunteering hours, food items donated.

NCFE chose to substantially invest in this initiative because of the way that it hugely supports families and communities, as well as giving the volunteers increased life chances, happiness, and satisfaction through an enhanced sense of purpose.

City College Plymouth are a fantastic example of GfMGfFE and the immediate support it is delivering. Once students learned that some of their peers might be struggling to feed themselves or their families, and missing out on their education, they worked with the college to create a foodbank on campus to help support those in need at this critical time.

During the first lockdown, Trafford College delivered care packages and educational resources to students in need and on the back of this, created its Community College Kitchen to support students and community partners – including The Samaritans, Loudspeaker, The Proud Trust, and Bare Necessities.

The scheme has proved incredibly important as it provides food, personal hygiene products and learning resources, but also promotes wellbeing and helps to address inequalities that may impact future life choices and the progression of students

In addition to GfMGfFE, several other college initiatives were discussed on the day, including Hopwood Hall, who shared how they’ve linked in with their local hygiene bank, and Chichester College Group, who reached out to organisations, including Vodafone, who were able to donate SIM cards for mobile phones.

Filling in the gaps

It’s clear to see that during the cost of living crisis, colleges are making significant contributions to the lives of their learners and to their communities, which extend far beyond their core purpose.

However, as incredible as these initiatives are, the crisis is undoubtedly placing huge additional pressure on colleges who are left filling in the gaps left by a lack of government support, recognising that they cannot educate cold and hungry learners.

Extra financial provision to help colleges to help their students would be most welcome and ensure that the empathy and compassion of colleges and their leaders is not solely depended on.

And whilst there are no easy answers to these concerns, it’s important to focus on what is within our control – collaborating, sharing best practice, researching, and signposting to what untapped resources are out there and, ultimately, lobbying for the support the sector needs to enable individuals and communities to thrive.

By Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at NCFE

Michael Lemin is Head of Policy at NCFE and has spent his career working across education, local government, and international development. He is an expert in vocational and technical education policy, working closely with colleagues and government to support the development of a system that works for all.

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