From education to employment

The Cost-of-Living Crisis: Access to HE and Foundation Year Programmes

Steve Hewitt

The last few years have seen some interesting shifts in what we could call “non-traditional” routes to starting a full-time undergraduate degree, especially in terms of Access to HE courses and Foundation Year programmes.

Level 3 Access to HE Courses

We can see from data published, that there has been a slow decline in 19+ learners taking Access to HE courses over the last eight years, from 32,000 in 2013/14 to 23,000 in 2020/21. Partly, this follows the general trend of decline in adults learning, but there are a number of additional factors particular to this group of learners. Unlike most other areas at Level 3 that have seen new funding available for learners to join courses through the prosaically named Free Courses for Jobs or the heightened awareness of Apprenticeships leading employers to train up staff, Access to HE learners have only two routes to funding.

For learners under 23 who do not have a Full Level 3 qualification (equivalent to two or more A Levels), there is still an entitlement to a free course. For everyone else, the only funding option is the Advanced Learner Loan. Although the statistics aren’t quite counting learners in the same way, we can see that roughly 15,000 of the 23,000 Access learners in 20/21 took out Advanced Learner Loans. On average, these loans were for just over £3,200 and exist purely to pay the tuition fee for the course (the money is paid directly from Student Finance England to the training provider).

The “big deal” for Access learners taking out these loans is that the Access portion is written off when they complete their Higher Education qualification. Students have become more savvy to their overall loan value being effectively a graduate tax that they will never fully pay off, however, the size of the total is less of a driver, even to debt-averse learners.

Apart from this loan to pay the provider, living cost support for these learners doing a very intensive course is incredibly thin on the ground. Depending on the provider they are with, there will be either Learner Support (for the L3 entitlement learners) or Loan Bursary (the rest) which can help with childcare and travel – however, this is often quite seriously limited as these are pots of money received by the provider who has to divide them out between all deserving learners, rather than any form of entitlement.

The one thing that there categorically isn’t for any of these learners is any form of maintenance support and whilst, traditionally, learners studying for less than 16 hours a week wouldn’t receive much hassle if they were also claiming out of work benefits, the shift to the punitive, sanctions-led system of Universal Credit – where 35 hours a week of job search are not unusual – means it is incredibly difficult for learners to combine learning with being on benefits unless they’ve been fortunate to have one of the good JCP job coaches.

Level 4 Foundation Year Programmes

Contrast this story of a well-established, community-based qualification rooted in helping under-represented groups take their first steps into Higher Education, dragged down by an uncaring Department for Education, with what seems to be the success story of the Foundation Year.

Although, frustratingly, there is no readily available recent data on these learners in the HESA open dataset, we can see from what is available that numbers on Foundation Year/ Year Zero for Mature learners (over 21) grew from only 1000 in 2011/12 to 5500 in 2017/18 (the most recent year available).

Access to HE and Foundation Years in the Round

Whilst we can’t say for certain that these are learners who would previously have done Access to HE, there is certainly a correlation with the fall in one and the increase in the other.

And you can’t really blame the learners! Whilst tuition fees for Foundation Years are, at least for the time being, the standard £9,250, the learner also gets access to the full panoply of support that learners on a standard three-year course do, most obviously the £9,706 maintenance loan. Whilst this is hardly a king’s ransom, in comparison to the support an Access to HE learner gets, it’s a different world.

Whilst the vast majority of learners on Foundation Years are under 21 (79% in 2017/18) and may have a wide range of reasons for doing a Foundation Year, for older learners who have the choice between Access and Foundation (and, of course, Foundation Years are not available for all courses or all providers), it seems to be somewhat of a no brainer. Given that most Access to HE learners (56%) are on courses in Health, Public Services and Care, likely heading to nursing and other related careers, it seems doubly unfair to restrict the support we give these learners who are determined to fill vital vacancies in our NHS.

Recommendation 1

Maintenance support for Access to HE learners should match that received by Foundation Year students and vice versa, with equal access to the level of full-time and part-time maintenance loans.

Recommendation 2

The Government should revisit Department for Work and Pensions guidance to allow people to attend meaningful, full-time, long courses whilst still being eligible for benefits, without the threat of sanctions hanging over them.

Recommendation 3

Data on Foundation Years should be added into the standard HESA dataset to allow for easier comparisons between them and other forms of provision.

By Steve Hewitt, Further Education Consultant

This article is part of Campaign for Learning’s series: Learning in the cold: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Post-16 Education and Skills

Order of series

Day 1

Friday 21st October

  1. Louise Murphy, Economist, Resolution Foundation: The Cost-of-Living and the Energy Crisis for Households 
  2. James Kewin, Deputy Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and 16-19 Year-Olds in Full-Time Further Education 

Day 2

Saturday 22nd October

  1. Becci Newton, Public Policy Research Director, Institute for Employment Studies: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and 16-18 Year-Olds in Jobs with Apprenticeships 
  2. Zach Wilson, Senior Analysis Officer and Andrea Barry, Analysis Manager, Youth Futures Foundation: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and 16-24 Year-Olds ‘Not in Full-Time Education’ 

Day 3

Monday 24th October

  1. Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Full-Time and Postgraduate Higher Education 
  2. Liz Marr, Pro-Vice Chancellor – Students, The Open University: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Part-Time Higher Education in England 

Day 4

Tuesday 25th October

  1. Steve Hewitt, Further Education Consultant: The Cost-of-Living Crisis: Access to HE and Foundation Year Programmes 
  2. Sophia Warren, Senior Policy Analyst, Policy in Practice: The Cost-of-Living Crisis, Universal Credit, Jobs and Skills Training 

Day 5

Wednesday 26th October

  1. Paul Bivand, Independent Labour Market Analyst: Economic Inactivity by the Over 50s, the Cost-of-Living Crisis and Adult Training 
  2. Aidan Relf, Skills Consultant: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Employer Demand for Level 2-7 Apprenticeships 

Day 6

Thursday 27th October

  1. Mandy Crawford-Lee, Chief Executive, UVAC: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Employer Demand for Level 4+ Apprenticeships and Part-Time Technical Education 
  2. Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive, WEA: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Adult Community Learning 

Day 7

Friday 28th October

  1. David Hughes, Chief Executive, AoC: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and FE Colleges 
  2. Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, AELP: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Independent Training Providers 

Day 8

Saturday 29th October

  1. Susan Pember, Policy Director, HOLEX: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Adult Education Providers 
  2. Martin Jones, Vice-Chancellor and David Etherington, Professor of Local and Regional Economic Development, Staffordshire University: The Cost-of-Living Crisis – The Response of Staffordshire University 
  3. Chris Hale, Policy Director, Universities UK: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Universities 

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