From education to employment

How do we ensure access to training opportunities for people on Universal Credit?

Olivia Gable, Policy Analyst at the Work Foundation at Lancaster University

The way our social security system operates is preventing many unemployed people and those on low incomes from accessing training opportunities. Within Universal Credit (UC), some people face ‘conditionality’ and are required as part of their claim to spend a minimum amount of time each week looking for work, and their ability to undertake full-time study is limited. This is holding back people who would likely benefit most from training from accessing the training opportunities they want and need to access more secure work.

If the Government are going to deliver plans to ‘Level Up’ education and skills across the country, changes need to be made to enhance access to training for people on UC. To better understand this problem, the Work Foundation conducted a study with people on UC who were interested in training, and we asked them about their experiences of trying to access training while receiving benefits.

From speaking with people, it was clear that they had a range of motivations for wanting to access training, and many had specific training goals. These ranged from wanting to change careers, to pursuing a passion, or finding local and flexible work that fit around caring needs.

One 30-year-old woman had worked a range of part-time retail jobs over the years, partly to fit around caring responsibilities, but she was looking for a chance to train for something more stable, like a receptionist role. Her statement about why she was motivated to access training stood out:

“I want to build up my skills like any other person. I want to build up my skills and knowledge so I can be more adaptable and more flexible in that sense because I didn’t really get given the opportunity to properly learn and develop them when I was a teenager… I just wanna earn enough to be happy to live off where I don’t need to be claiming any benefits.”

Like others we spoke to, she simply wanted the opportunity to access training to gain qualifications and move into more secure work with regular hours. However, she said the Work Coaches she’d worked with through Jobcentre Plus had not spoken to her about course opportunities other than sending her a two-week supermarket retail training course that she’d had to cancel after struggling to find affordable childcare at short notice.

Her experience encapsulates some of the key challenges people in our research faced in trying to access training. These included struggling to start or complete training around conditionality requirements, difficulty building a relationship with their Work Coach, and needing flexible work to fit around caring responsibilities.

Meeting UC requirements can feel like a full-time job

Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions for May 2022 show that close to 2.4 million people were claiming UC and required to look for work, either because they were unemployed or were on a low income. Our study revealed how these requirements can prevent people from starting training courses that could benefit them, and the range of experiences people described in interviews pointed to a lack of consistency in how the rules are applied.

In cases where people were able to undertake part-time or self-paced training, most were still having to spend between 16-35 hours each week looking for work so they could keep receiving benefits. One person who was studying hairdressing at a local college two days a week told me that because she still had requirements to look for work 35 hours a week, she would sometimes need to conduct her job search while sitting in the back of the class on her laptop. The tutor let her do this because she knew she could lose benefits otherwise, but it’s concerning that people like her could be missing out on important material in their lessons which could slow their progress down.

People on UC struggled to build relationships with Work Coaches

People we interviewed largely experienced challenges building relationships with their Work Coaches. This was partly due to sudden changes in Work Coaches, meetings being too short and a perception that the purpose of the discussion was mostly to tick boxes. In rare examples, some people spoke of working with their Work Coaches like a team, with them listening to their training interests and helping them find matching jobs and opportunities.

However, people often didn’t feel able to tell their Work Coaches about courses they wanted to take or to ask them for advice. Many people I spoke to were actually finding training courses without the help of their Work Coaches and some were even doing their own research about the rules around accessing training while receiving UC.

The inability to build trust is also important because Work Coaches have discretion to adjust conditionality rules based on their understanding of someone’s personal circumstances. When trust is lacking, people are less likely to feel able to share such challenges, along with their training and career goals.

The lack of affordable and flexible childcare is posing a real challenge for parents wanting to take up training

Because we interviewed a higher proportion of mothers in our research, it may not be surprising that we frequently heard about the challenges parents faced trying to access training while on UC. But what was surprising was the number of times parents had a training opportunity they had to turn down because they couldn’t arrange childcare in time.

One 25-year-old mother, who was looking to become a teaching assistant or work with children with special needs, was taking a self-paced online Level 5 course in child psychology at the time of

our interview. But she spoke of previously needing to turn down a fully funded college nursing course she’d been accepted onto because she was unable to find someone to watch her child.

What should be done?

The study informed the creation of several recommendations for the Department for Work and Pensions that would help ensure people on UC are not being shut out of training opportunities.

  • UC’s restrictions on study should be removed to allow anyone receiving UC to study part or full-time for at least one year, and the time people spend studying should count towards conditionality requirements.
  • People on UC should have access to clear information about rules on studying, course opportunities and available funding to cover fees and costs of studying, such as travel.
  • The Government and Jobcentres should ensure Work Coaches have not only the time to support everyone with an interest in accessing training but can also access up-to-date knowledge of labour market demand, local skills ecosystems and training opportunities so they can signpost people on UC to relevant services.
  • The Government should prioritise creating an affordable childcare offer to improve access to work and training for parents and carers, ensuring that those on UC have costs covered in full and paid for up-front.

Government has demonstrated its commitment to reforming education and boosting skills, while articulating a clear ambition to Level Up the UK economy. These changes would build on progress made to date, and ensure that as the cost of living crisis continues on, the barriers to training for people on UC are finally removed.

By Olivia Gable, Policy Analyst at the Work Foundation at Lancaster University

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