From education to employment

The Invisible ‘Beast from the East’ for Students

Andy Forbes

For young students across the East of England, the challenge of studying for vital qualifications is not merely an academic one. For many, the first hurdle is simply getting to the classroom in the first place.

Unless they are lucky enough to live near their local college, or to have enough money to own their own car, these students face the daunting prospect of using public transport every day of the week – leaving them at the mercy of whatever local transport system they happen to live under.

Unlike other English regions, the East of England doesn’t have a large conurbation at its centre. Instead, it has a pleasant mix of rural and urban areas, and long stretches of coastline. Sadly, it also has one of the least integrated transport systems in the country, with fragmented and poorly coordinated bus and train services being a long-standing challenge for the region.

This means thousands of Easterners who live in rural areas face a journey to college that is not only time-consuming, but also expensive. Colleges and sixth forms across the region report that every year they enrol many students who have to spend two or three hours travelling to and from college, relying on buses and trains that, especially in the winter months, can be unreliable and involve long waiting times.

It’s not quite the “Beast from the East” weather scenario, but it’s certainly having a chilling effect on students, families and colleges across the whole region.

When I began to look into this with the Eastern Powerhouse, we found an astonishing amount of money being spent by colleges to subsidise student travel to and from college. Typically, this adds up to between £200,000 and £500,000 a year on tickets and railcards, plus, in some cases, the college having to run its own bus services.

One college spends nearly £900,000 a year on transport for students, and altogether it’s estimated that the dozen or so colleges in the region spend over £10 million a year between them on student travel.

And the situation is getting worse. Quite rightly, the government is insisting that all 16-19 year olds do at least two weeks’ work experience as part of their course, and the new T Levels now being phased in demand that students do at least 45 days of work experience every year. For students, this means finding a placement they can get to for nine weeks of the year – with the obvious danger that they simply wont be able to access the work experience they need.

On top of that, students taking apprenticeships have to be able to get to their workplace as well as to college regularly, adding yet another layer of travel to their working week. This presents such a sizable barrier that one generous local businessman donates several thousand a year to the Colchester Institute to help pay for apprentice travel.

The Department for Education does give colleges money to cover student welfare needs, including travel, and since 2020 it has added a “rurality” factor into its calculations, so that colleges in rural areas get a bit more than others. However, most colleges report that this is still not enough to cover their needs, and that they have to be very careful when budgeting to make this extra money stretch.

This money also fiendishly complicated to administer, as each train and bus company operate different schemes for student travel. Some offer half price for 16-17 year olds, some a third off bus tickets, whilst some local authorities pay subsidies to local students. Colleges have to keep up to date with all this, costing them many hours in administrative time and resources.

The question has to be asked: why should students and colleges in rural areas in the East of England be penalised for where they happen to live? These students have to spend more time, pay more money, and jump through more bureaucratic hoops to get access to the same opportunities as their urban peers.

Surely it would be simpler and easier to give bus and train companies the money they need to make travel for 16-18 year olds and apprentices free – as is already the case in London and Greater Manchester. If it’s come to the point where we’re relying on big-hearted local businesses to pay from their own pockets for student travel, something surely has gone awry.

In the long term, the answer must be to radically improve public transport infrastructure across the East of England, and the Eastern Powerhouse is already making this case loudly to government. In the meantime, however, generations of young people in the East will face an extra logistical hurdle in their battle for a good education, which for some will be insurmountable.

Living in the countryside or on the coast surely shouldn’t mean being cut off from opportunities that other parts of the country take for granted. To redress this glaring geographic imbalance, the government must act fast to level up travel for all students, in every region.

By Andy Forbes, a former FE College Principal in Hertfordshire, London, and Bristol. He is now Head of Development at ResPublica. 

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