Friday, 27 July 2012

Concessions on FE Loans – Good in Parts

by Mick Fletcher

Although the limited set of concessions announced for those most affected by the loss of grant support in FE and its replacement by loans does not go far enough to meet all the fears of critics it does nevertheless contain good news.  See  The main proposal, to write off any FE loan incurred by Access to HE students if and when they complete a degree, makes good sense and shows that BIS ministers have taken note of their own impact assessment and recent evidence on HE recruitment.  The numbers of adult students entering HEIs has already fallen sharply, almost certainly as a result of the new hikes in fees. 
The prospect of adding a further year’s debt could have been a huge disincentive, particularly since most Access students are aiming for relatively low paid professions like teaching and nursing.  They are the group whose pay will rise above the threshold of £21,000 at today’s prices; but not by very much: so unlike the high flyers who will pay off student debts quickly without really noticing this group will have their repayments stretched out over 30 years with interest accumulating all the time.

It is baffling however why BIS found it necessary to restrict this concession to those on Access programmes and not those entering HE by other routes.  Anyone who was sincere about protecting social mobility (the chance of it increasing in the current climate seems too remote to contemplate) would welcome those who entered HE in later life on the basis of A levels or BTECs or any other qualification; and the numbers are so tiny the cost would be minimal.

There is still no support for STEM subjects, unlike the position in HE.  As grant support is removed, fees based on 50% of the unweighted cost will increase to 100% of the weighted cost: so a humanities student will face a fee increase of 100% but for an engineering student it will be 160% or 220%! This has to be a perverse message and a disincentive to enter those occupations that government is keen to promote; it is surprising that those bodies advocating STEM are not more exercised about it.

The big gap in the announcement however remains its silence on the subject of apprenticeships.  Progression from a level 3 apprenticeship to a degree or equivalent is apparently not sufficient to get the cost of the first loan written off.  The prospect that having to pay fees for something which up to now has been free will deter many well qualified applicants has to be a real one, and not one that a department concerned with workforce skills can ignore.  The failure to protect STEM subjects will also hit some apprenticeship sectors hard – six months to gain a qualification in customer service might be affordable; two to three years in the electro-technical sector is something altogether different.    We will probably see more concessions as this hastily implemented policy starts to unravel.

Mick Fletcher is a policy consultant to the Campaign for Learning and a member of the Policy Consortium  He writes here in a personal capacity.

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