Two decades of advances in the sector could be undone by the government's funding cuts, says Labour's FE minister
By Gordon Marsden MP: Learners from the most deprived backgrounds are being hung out to dry by a government that has promised to increase social mobility but instead continues to cut vital funding for those who need it most.
Last month’s decision to cut maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students is the latest in a series of government decisions that threaten to derail social mobility progress. It is part of a pattern that can be seen in other areas of government. It mirrors the removal of NHS bursaries for nurses and other staff, and has been foreshadowed by changes that the government has made in support for further education over the past few years.
A hugely regressive loan system
The government has replaced maintenance grants with increased loans, meaning 500,000 of this country’s most disadvantaged learners face debts of up to £53,000 should they choose to pursue higher education.
A large number of these students can be found at FE colleges up and down the country, from 1,669 at NCG in the North East to 931 at Cornwall College in the South West. These are among the 33,700 English applicants awarded maintenance grants for HE courses at FE colleges last year. The expansion of HE in FE after 1997 was one of the most significant advances made under the Labour government, crucial to beginning to address the lack of balance for HE in the English regions outside the clusters of long-established universities.
Alongside scrapping maintenance grants, the government is implementing a freeze of the loan repayment threshold for five years at £21,000. This threatens to disproportionately affect students from more modest backgrounds who will face greater debts and find themselves having to pay more and more quickly. This could be hugely regressive in areas where salaries are lower.
Poorest students in dire straits
These government changes put at risk two decades’ worth of advances, potentially denying access to HE for England’s most disadvantaged students and, along with the disjointed FE area reviews, they are leaving the poorest students in dire straits.
This, of course, is nothing new to the government and its Tory-led predecessor. In 2011, after the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, almost half of England’s colleges experienced a decline in student numbers. The removal of more grants, and potential closures and mergers of colleges as a result of the area reviews, threaten a similar impact, with poorer students unable to commit to leaving university with £53,000 debt and not able to travel the sizeable distances to college that closures/mergers could produce.
Fatal blind spot
The situation facing adult learners, both in FE and in HE, is also bleak. Lifelong learning in the UK has declined by 21 per cent in the past eight years – contrasted with a 15 per cent rise across Europe. The government is threatening £360 million worth of “efficiencies” in the adult skills budget outside apprenticeships, which will impact on part-time and adult learners at FE colleges. Alongside adult learners, the government’s own impact assessment shows a disproportionate effect on black and minority ethnic, disabled, female and Muslim students, each affected in their own way by the disastrous decision to remove the crucial maintenance grant.
The government is so focused on apprenticeship numbers to the exclusion of other forms of retraining and skills work that it has a fatal blind spot. This all just ties into a blunt instrument strategy: making savings and cuts to fit artificial austerity targets, to the detriment of disadvantaged students. But it’s their potential and life chances for which our social cohesion and economic growth will pay a heavy price.