Monday, 16 July 2012

How FE Colleges tackle unemployment

by Mick Fletcher

It was interesting to see this week that in Scotland at least boosting provision at FE Colleges is accepted as a logical policy response to high levels of unemployment (see ) The 157 Group are urging Whitehall policy makers to catch up and do the same south of the border. As a recent report published by the Group states it makes far more sense to train someone in new skills for the upturn than to pay them to chase jobs that don’t exist. The report can be found at

A major problem facing young adults who want to invest in developing their skills is maintenance; how do you make ends meet while studying at college. 
In contrast to the billions of pounds spent on financial support for those entering higher education the amount allocated for adult FE is derisory – around £100 million in total.  The new FE loans won’t help either; they are only intended to cover fees and in particular the extra costs created by removing all grant support for those over the age of 24 studying at level 3 and above.

Some of the unemployed have been able to take advantage of the ’16 hour rule’ which allows those on benefit to study as long as they don’t exceed 16 hours per week.  The problem is however that they have to be ‘ready and available for work’, and can have substantial programmes of study interrupted by requirements to participate in short job search activities or sessions on cv writing.  What is needed is the ability to draw down support while undertaking a sustained period of education – something that will make a fundamental difference to an individual’s skill levels and their chances of finding sustainable employment.  The short interventions favoured by Job Centre Plus have their place, but they can’t raise people’s skills to a new and higher level.

The 157 Group argues for a major reconfiguration of financial support for young adults.  Investment in maintenance support could in part be funded by savings on Job Seekers Allowance; and it could be provided as in HE by a mix of grants and loans.  Colleges  are well placed to administer bursaries that meet the indirect costs of studying but to have the impact needed a national entitlement to support with basic living costs is required.

The Group is not simply asking for extra cash.  They believe that they could meet local needs better were they to be given greater freedom to offer the types of course that local employers want.  At present funding for adult students is restricted largely to qualification bearing courses approved by government and its agencies.  Many employers however don’t want whole qualifications and in some cases are not looking for qualifications at all.  If colleges were able to meet employers needs better it would offer the best way of all to tackle unemployment – by increasing the viability of businesses and thereby their ability to offer real jobs.

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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