Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth and television presenter Dermot O’Leary are among thousands who have signed a petition calling for the “learning tax” on sixth-form colleges to be axed.
The campaign by the Sixth Form Colleges' Association (SFCA) is urging the Department for Education to refund the VAT costs of sixth-form colleges, which it claims leave the average college with £335,000 less each year to spend on the education of students.
An e-petition started before Christmas has already attracted more than 10,000 signatures, including a number of former sixth-form college students who have gone on to forge successful careers.
X-Factor host and Radio 2 DJ O’Leary said he had an “extremely positive” experience as a student at The Sixth Form College, Colchester. "I was able to retake my GCSEs and study A-levels in a caring and supportive environment,” he said.
“The teachers took a real interest in my education and encouraged me to get involved in a range of extra-curricular activities. I’m supporting the drop the learning tax campaign because I want future sixth-form college students to benefit from the sort of education that has served me so well over the years.”
The campaign is also being supported by politicians including Conservative MP Graham Stuart, chair of the Education Select Committee.
Mr Stuart said: “MPs across the House feel strongly that it is wrong that sixth-form colleges still have to pay VAT, when schools and academies can reclaim those costs.
“Young people should receive the same level of investment in their education, irrespective of where they choose to study. I would urge all political parties to commit to addressing this anomaly.”
SFCA deputy chief executive James Kewin said the discrepancy was a “clear injustice”.
“The government should drop the learning tax to ensure sixth-form colleges can continue to provide students with the high-quality education they need to succeed and prosper,” he added.
A survey published by SFCA in June showed that 68 per cent of sixth-form colleges have dropped courses and 71 per cent have reduced enrichment activities such as drama, music and sport because of cuts to funding.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Our plan for education means thousands more students are staying in education or training after the age of 16, giving them the skills and experience they need for life in modern Britain.
“We have ended the historic and unfair funding difference between post-16 schools and colleges by funding them per student, rather than discriminating between qualifications – this ensures young people are studying high quality courses that will help them get on in their lives.
“The funding is sufficient for each full-time student to undertake a full timetable of courses to suit their needs, be it A-levels or other post-16 qualifications. It is for individual institutions to decide on what they provide to best suit the needs of their students.”
Sixth form colleges demand end to 'damaging' changes to funding – November 2014
Sixth-form colleges warn of redundancies as A-levels are axed – October 2014
Funding cuts force sixth form colleges to axe staff and courses, says report – June 2014