From education to employment

Will FE loans widen participation?

Advanced Level FE Loans will be one of the biggest issues to face the sector in the next 18 months. Discussions at a recent NIACE members’ seminar with colleges, local authorities, private training providers, distance learning, specialist institutions, as well as charities that both deliver and fund learning focused on preparation for this major policy change.

Alongside Preparation I think that there are six other Ps for the sector to consider.

1. Providers. For some providers level 3 for people over 24 is a large part of their work. For larger colleges this amounts to thousands of learners and as much as 10% of their income. Colleges, and other providers whose mission is to have a broad offer, will have to make the policy work. But not everyone is in that boat, and some providers may walk away from level 3 for adults over 24. There will be more stable and lucrative markets to work in. This will present opportunities for other, perhaps new, providers to take up the slack.

The other issue for providers is how much they will have to invest in implementing the new scheme. Many said it would involve huge culture change for their organisation. Every member of staff will need to know about loans. In addition to this, there will be a need for more staff. Based on advice sessions for HE loans some FE providers are modelling on the need for 3.5 hours per applicant. For some large colleges this means two new members of staff.  Many FE providers have experience of the current HE loans system and working with the Student Loans Company. They anticipate issues here, not helped by the fact that year one will be a paper based system. This could slow the process down.

2. Provision. There are worries that the impact on provision could not be just at level 3 and 4. Many learners make their decisions earlier than that, their aspirations start on ESOL or literacy courses. There are concerns that this provision could be affected by negative perceptions of loans alongside worries that certain sectors where there are skills gaps, such as health and social care, might be adversely affected.

But the biggest issue perhaps is how learner behaviour might change. Will learners become more consumerist? Will learners think that 80% success rates are good enough when they have borrowed £3000 to do a course? Of course many learning providers who do not access any government funding are familiar with this dilemma (as well as having to charge VAT.)  This policy could be good news for them if they can access the market, which means getting onto the register of providers.

3. Progression. A lot has already been said about the effect on learners progressing to HE. Will they be able to bear the cost of two loans, one at FE and one at HE? Will these loans be recouped concurrently? But little has been said about the progression to level 3 from level 2. What will be the effect on the whole FE ecology?  All this points to the importance of impartial information, advice and guidance. While in HE a lot had been invested in this, we are still in relatively unknown territory with part-time students accessing loans for their HE.  The experience of The Open University this year will be worth watching.

4. Price is always a key determinant of consumer behaviour. But the cost of a course and price are not the same thing. The tariff of what courses cost is important for providers determining how much to charge. But there are other considerations. If a course costs £3000 there is nothing stopping a provider charging £2000 or £3000. Could a provider charge £3000 and give £500 cash back on completion? Could the cost of provision include study trips abroad etc? Once you let the market decide, you have to follow where the market wants to go. This could free up some of the unnecessary restrictions on what adults can study and when, but it could also have some unintended outcomes.

Awareness of price and borrowing presents challenges to learners’ financial capability, as well as to providers’ duties as educators to ensure people understand what they are committing to.

5. Place. There are striking geographical differences across the country, widely different skills levels, demand for skills, and expectations to pay. But will the system also favour larger providers who may be further away from community settings? People with lower skills have shorter geographical horizons and place matters more to them. Larger providers who want to subcontract might find that there is less margin in the loans system. There are many place-based issues that are just being unearthed as the loans policy develops, and as research is carried out in different parts of the country.

6. Participation is the wicked issue, however, it is the acid test of this reform. The government’s own impact assessment predicts an overall decline in learner numbers. But who will these be? Some research indicates that older people are adverse to debt, but if sold to them well they might have the most to benefit from Loans. Most pensioners do not earn £21,000. For them the loans system amounts to a free course. Providers might see the benefit of working with this age group, which is growing as the population ages. The lack of an Equivalent or Lower Qualification policy for FE loans also means it is possible for professors with PhDs to retrain as plumbers. Very nice for them and perhaps good for the economy too, but is it the kind of widening participation that is so desperately needed?

However, elsewhere many people will surely see the loan as a worthwhile investment in their future career and prosperity in return for quality learning. And as the market for learners intensifies the performance of providers will be critical.

Mark Ravenhall is director of policy and impact at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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