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Brendan Barber warns of “drop-off” in adult learning

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Concern as Government presses ahead with their proposed loans scheme for FE students over the age of 24.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber warns of decline in said: “This scheme will lead to a major drop-off of adult learning in the further education sector. An estimated 100,000 fewer learners per year will benefit at a time when skills development is more important than ever to rebuilding the economy and people’s lives. “Today’s announcement of new support measures to ‘soften the blow’ of much increased fees for 2013 is welcome, but the government must monitor take-up levels and be prepared to look again at further support if it proves to be needed.”

The government’s own equalities impact assessment revealed concerns that women, ethnic minorities and the disabled would be disproportionately affected and more recent research suggests that there will be particular effects on the 40+ age group who are more ‘risk averse’. The late additions to the new policy are welcome, albeit limited, says the TUC. These include the government’s announcement of extra measures to support Access to Higher Education courses, a £50 million bursary – targeted at vulnerable groups including working mums – and more specialist Careers Information Advice and Guidance (CIAG), particularly for the 40+ group.

The loans mechanism will also make new financial support available to adults wishing to pursue learning opportunities. But it must be made clear to learners that it will only be paid back progressively once they are earning over £21,000 a year, the TUC warns. It will be essential to the success of the new system that this is properly understood by users. Unionlearn, the learning and skills arm of the TUC, has concerns about the impact on adult apprenticeships, where unscrupulous employers and agencies may seek to reduce costs at the expense of their apprentices. It is calling on the government to ‘smooth the path’ for employers to bear the brunt of the reduced subsidies for adult apprenticeships. Unionlearn also wants the government to revisit proposals for all employers to bear the full liability for the cost of college provision, with the development of a loans service for smaller employers.
Unionlearn is focusing on making sure that there is proper provision of information for Union Learning Representatives (ULRs), learners and other interested parties to ensure they understand how the loans system will work. We will also be looking at strategies to mitigate against the worst effects of the policy, including through more help from employers. Director of unionlearn Tom Wilson said: “The move to FE Loans will be a cause of great concern to many working people. It is essential that it does not impact on apprentices, whose training should continue to be paid for by their employees. The government’s own research also shows a very mixed and uncertain picture. Likely appetite for learning among older workers could plummet. Women and BME working people are more likely to be put off. We’re glad the government has listened to expert voices from the sector – including from unionlearn – and have introduced support for people taking Access to Higher Education courses and bursaries for disadvantage groups including working mothers. Of course there are some upsides such as the opportunity to borrow to pursue long cherished ambitions, just like HE students. But there must be a major communications drive and a readiness to tackle
emerging problem areas with additional help and a willingness to think again if the need arises.”

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