Colleges in England are estimating a £2 million overspend on 16-19 bursary funding, Tes can reveal.
Exclusive Tes analysis shows that 36 per cent of the total 16-19 bursary funding pot had been spent or allocated by 20 October 2020.
Of the 80 colleges across the country that responded to Tes’ freedom of information request, almost 30 per cent predicted an overspend of the funds. Around 10 per cent were unsure whether their budget would last or not, and 59 per cent said that there would be no overspend.
The data also revealed that where colleges believed their funds would run out: three had already spent their allocation in full, 10 said it would be spent by the Easter holidays, six said it would be spent by May, nine by June, and 46 by July. Six colleges remained unsure when it would run out.
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At Chichester College Group, the bursary entitlement (£780,000) has already been fully allocated and leaders are predicting an overspend of £80,000 to £100,000.
Chief executive Shelagh Legrave told Tes that the college had received 110 more applications for the fund, compared with last year, and that the challenge was twofold: as parents lose their jobs, student demand for support increases and as remote learning continues, students need technology.
College bursary support
She said: “We're operating fairly normally. We've got between 50 and 75 per cent of people coming to college every day, so people are travelling and doing all the normal things that will be supported through a bursary. But there are two reasons why we're getting a greater number of applications.
“The first is that we've got parents losing their jobs. We've got students who have become eligible for support, including travel and books. And then the second issue is that we are teaching some people at home and, at any one time, we have people out because they are self-isolating. We're also having to support them through technology.”
Ms Legrave said that the group would welcome extra funding from the government to support disadvantaged students, and emphasised the importance of the fund for students.
She said: “Even in somewhere like West Sussex, which is always considered perhaps to be a more privileged part of the country, there are people who need food banks, who are really, really struggling to feed themselves and support themselves. When they're in college, we obviously give them free school meals.
“If we didn't provide them with bursary funds, they just wouldn't be able to access the college education that we can offer. Much as we can deliver some online, it’s nothing like the experience you get face to face. With some practical subjects like hospitality, beauty, construction, engineering, we made good as much as we could in the summer and we were able to deliver a lot of the practical pieces before we locked down in March. But at the start of an academic year, you need them in front of you, having access to that equipment.”
'Students deserve better'
NUS vice-president for further education Salsabil Elmegri said that the findings were concerning, but not unsurprising.
“It unsurprising that the 16-19 bursaries funded to colleges have not been sufficient to cover all necessary costs and meet the demands," she said. "Further education has consistently been underfunded, and students and colleges are suffering these repercussions. The pandemic has only served to amplify hardship for students, with many young learners now struggling to access food and basic necessities, books and equipment for courses and, in many cases, transport or travel costs.
"The government must urgently seek to increase maintenance support for further education students and improve funding systems in place to support colleges and institutions. Students deserve better than being disregarded and overlooked.”
Last summer, the Department for Education told colleges that they had to use their bursary funding to provide digital devices and remote learning tools for learners. Colleges that did not have sufficient bursary funds available were told to apply to the Education and Skills Funding Agency for additional funding.
However, exclusive Tes analysis in the summer found that the Department for Education awarded less than half of the extra hardship money requested by colleges. Around 16 colleges asked for extra hardship funding, requesting £886,847 in total – however, only £413,303 was awarded, 54 per cent less than needed.
Chief executive of the Association of Colleges David Hughes said that colleges needed urgent financial support.
“Colleges always put student needs at the heart of delivery," he said. "It comes as no surprise that colleges have overspent their bursary allocations and many more predict to do so very shortly. When we surveyed members in July, 90 per cent said that many of their students were already facing increased hardship and that their bursary funds would not be able to meet demand.
"As the pandemic continues to hit families and communities, we know that the poorest are feeling the brunt of the economic downturn, so colleges need urgent financial support to enable them to continue to support their students. Investment in technology for the 100,000 colleges students in digital poverty, and covering Covid costs including cleaning schedules and extra exam costs, needs to be at the forefront of DfE considerations as budgets are set for the coming year and the FE White Paper sets the direction of travel for the sector.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We know it is a difficult time for colleges and we thank them for their continued hard work to ensure their students can continue to access education and training.
“Through the 16-19 bursary and AEB learner support fund we are helping to make sure their disadvantaged students get the support they need including devices, travel and books. We are working closely with the sector, keeping the current situation and any new evidence presented to us under review."