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FEfocus Editorial - Let people take their shot when they are ready

David Cameron invoked the ghost of Lord Kitchener in his speech to the Conservative conference: "Your country needs you." And indeed, as we wait to hear where the cuts will fall, there is a sense of shivering in the dawnlight, waiting to be sent over the top into the hail of bullets. At the moment, though, we are still in the phoney war stage where the battles are taking place behind closed doors in Whitehall. All the signals and manoeuvres need to be viewed with scepticism: it is not yet clear whether we are being prepared for the worst with good reason, or whether we are expected to be relieved on October 20 that we find ourselves only in the Marne rather than the Somme.

That said, a complete withdrawal of funding for adult level 3 courses, if that is indeed being contemplated, would be a drastic blow. FE's reputation as a second chance in education rests to a large degree on the ability of adults to use it to win places in university, which means A- levels or access to HE courses.

It is perhaps more likely that the proposals that will emerge will involve replacing direct funding with loans. If there is going to be a severe reduction in public funding, then using subsidies to help people pay for courses themselves has a lot to recommend it.

But the difficulties should not be underestimated. No one could say that a similar shift in universities went entirely smoothly and without a backlash. We should expect that some people will balk at the cost and the debt. Nor, given that deficit reduction is the aim, should we be all that proud of seeking to transfer Government debt into private debt.

Proposals for loans in FE also come just as universities are thinking again about the best way of financing their courses. If Lord Browne recommends something different from today's system of fees and loans, FE could end up with an outdated, hand-me-down funding system for level 3. Like the generals in 1914, we will be stuck fighting the last war.

Moreover, students taking level 3 qualifications in order to get to university could find themselves taking loans on top of loans to pay for two waves of fees. Essentially, the cherished second chance in education will suddenly become more expensive than the first one.

At the same time, thanks to the raising of the education participation age, there is a good chance that students who are not ready for level 3 study will be sent over the top into courses that they are destined to fail.

If people are to have only one free chance at a level 3 qualification, and if they are expected to take responsibility for the costs of their education, they should at least have the choice about when they take it.

A Government that professes to put choice and volunteerism ahead of dictating from the centre should be able to see the appeal of letting people take qualifications when they are ready. And if funds are limited, it is surely better that they should go to the people who want an education the most, and who are more likely to have chosen their course well, to work hard and to succeed - even if they are unfortunate enough to be over 18.

The Liberal Democrats proposed such a change in their manifesto, arguing that instead of forcing 16-year-olds into education, an allowance should be available when they wanted to use it. It would need the co-operation of the Department for Education, but both secretaries of state should consider it.

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