Rocket fuel or rocketing debt? The new offer for adult education

The government’s legislative programme announced in the Queen’s speech on 11 May gave particular prominence to the idea of ‘levelling up’, promising “bold new interventions to improve livelihoods and opportunities throughout the UK”.  Central to this vision is the reform of vocational education, described as offering new lifelong learning opportunities for adults. The prime minister Boris Johnson, with characteristic hyperbole asserted that new legislation reforming further and adult education would be “rocket fuel” for the levelling-up agenda. 

What then are these proposals that will put “rocket boosters under our recovery and Build Back Better?”   Nothing very much it seems.  Looked at in detail they are more like painting go-faster stripes on an old banger than adding jet propulsion. 

To give credit where it is due a focus on further education at least seeks to address a real problem, unlike the proposals to legislate on free speech or voter ID. Opportunities for adults to improve their education and acquire new skills have shrunk dramatically, especially in the last decade. The number of adult learners fell by 4 million between 2010 and 2020, driven largely by a cut of 47 per cent in government funding. Yet there is no indication that the ‘rocket fuel’ will replace even a fraction of the resources lost through austerity.

The Queen’s speech simply repeats the proposals set out in the White Paper of 21 January which were hailed by Tory MP and select committee chair Robert Halfon as a plan to  “revolutionise skills in this nation, meet employer needs and rocket-boost apprenticeships”.  It contains two so-called ‘big ideas’ – a Lifetime Skills Guarantee and a Lifelong Loan Entitlement.  Neither live up to their billing.

The ‘Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ offers adults who lack a qualification equivalent to ‘A’ level the chance to acquire one for free. It sounds exciting until one looks at the detail.  Firstly, it transpires that only a limited set of qualifications can be studied under the guarantee – courses selected by Whitehall officials reflecting the prejudices of politicians rather than the aspirations of individuals. These qualifications, according to the Labour party, exclude those needed for occupations employing over 9 million people such as care or hospitality.

 The scheme also excludes anyone who already has an ’A’ level or equivalent qualification however antique or irrelevant to the needs of the modern world it may be. It is therefore of no help at all to those left behind by changing technology. In a world where many people will have to retrain for new careers, perhaps more than once in their lifetime, the only guarantee here is that you are on your own.

The other big idea is debt.  More dodgy debt to be precise ( and to see why it is dodgy look  here ) Despite the many problems arising from soaring levels of student debt and the shady accounting that helped promote it, the big idea is to extend the tentacles of the student loan company (SLC) still further.

It is still not clear how ambitious the proposal for a lifelong loan entitlement is though it certainly lacks a sense of urgency. The White Paper talks of “Changing the law so that from 2025 people can access flexible student finance”. It’s not quite the speed one normally associates with rocket boosters.

 At present, government support for students is limited to those seeking a qualification at a higher level than one they currently hold. Unless this changes the reform amounts to not very much at all.   Students can already get loans to help with fees for up to four years of study beyond ‘A’ levels. They can take out a loan for maintenance as well unless they are part time learners and studying for less than a full degree.  Adults in further education are also able to get loans to take a first qualification at A level standard. The response to these  Advanced Learner Loans as they are known should sound a note of caution.

The introduction of loans for further education students on the same terms as those for students in higher education in 2013/14 was accompanied by a collapse in recruitment.  According to an official evaluation in 2018 “The first couple of years of the introduction of a loans-based environment for those aged 24+ has been associated with a marked drop in the volumes of both learners and learning aims being studied on eligible courses. The number of learners on loans-eligible courses fell from 142,000 in 2012/13 to 98,000 in 2013/14 (and further to 94,000 in 2014/15).”     

Of the £1.56 billion allocated for loans for the first three years only £652 million was taken up.  At the same time college leaders were expressing  concerns that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were particularly reluctant to take on debt.  Despite extending the scheme to those aged 19+ and extending the range of courses covered the number of FE loans taken out in 2019/20 fell further to 62,100.

The caution of many potential students is well-founded. In the early years of the FE loan scheme several private training providers went bankrupt leaving students with no course but an outstanding debt to the SLC.  Although the government has now taken powers to repay student cash in such circumstances there is no guarantee that it will. Nor is there any guarantee that they will not change the repayment terms attached to loans after they have been taken out.

Taken together the two flagship proposals for further education are not so much lifelong as lifeless. The ‘guarantee’ is so constrained as to exclude large numbers of those who might benefit from learning new skills.  The ‘lifetime entitlement’ is to a lifetime of debt. Hardly an enticing offer for those ‘left behind’ in our deprived communities.