How do we support 'the missing middle' in FE?

We need to encourage participation at level 3 by removing financial barriers, writes Mark Corney

Mark Corney

Financial barriers to technical and vocational courses need to be removed to encourage participation and achievement, writes Mark Corney

The present prime minister is battling to secure extra funding for "schools and 16- to 17-year-olds". The Augar Review recommends increasing the funding rate for 18-year-olds and proposes equal access for full-time and part-time HE and adult FE students on level 4-6 qualifications to guaranteed means-tested maintenance loans and grants up to £9,000 per year.

Together, these recommendations indicate the likely agenda for a continuing Conservative government and future spending review. The stark truth, however, is that this agenda offers very little to the 36 per cent of 24-year-olds who do not achieve a first full level 3.

Read more: Augar review: Give colleges £1bn and freeze HE funding

Opinion: Why the post-18 review still matters for colleges

Background: May ‘wants’ multi-billion-pound boost for schools

Bursary grants

An entitlement to free education for a first full level 2 and a first full level 3 already exists for 19- to 23-year-olds through the Adult Education Budget. The proposal by the Augar panel to extend these entitlements to the 24-plus age group would add a year to free education.

At present, 19- to 23-year-olds seeking a first full level 3 compete for locally administered bursary grants worth, in most cases, up to £300 and costing the Treasury about £35 million with other 19- to 23-year-old learners. The Augar panel proposal to increase funding for more low-value bursary grants targeted at the 24-plus age group taking out the extended level 2 and 3 tuition entitlements will only improve access for 24-year-olds.

About 47 per cent of 24-year-olds have participated in level 4-6 higher education. By age 30, the rate hits the magical 50 per cent. Assessments are being made as to whether the Augar panel reforms would increase participation yet further, although even if they do there would still be a large group of 19- to 24-year-olds without a first full level 3.

The financial risks of level 3 study

A telling Department for Education statistic is that only 12,000 19- to 23-year-olds are enrolled on first full level 3 courses. The combination of free education and possible access to low-value bursary grants is clearly not working. Insecure and low earnings – including from gig jobs – alongside low maintenance support makes working and studying part-time, let alone full-time, for a first full level 3 too risky.

Chapter 7 of the Augar panel report, entitled "A Post-18 Maintenance System", states: Maintenance support is a key enabler in post-18 education. A fair maintenance system is essential to ensuring that all individuals with the desire to do so can be educated after the age of 18 to the benefit of society, the economy and a fast-changing labour market.

Compelling stuff. But it then goes on to conclude that the proposed "nationally administered system" of high-value maintenance loans and grants should be restricted to full-time and part-time level 4-6 students. For the panel, the national scheme is not appropriate for "learners at level 3 and below". Comparing the maintenance needs of 19- to 24-year-olds on a first full level 3 and on short courses lasting a few hours, however, defies common sense.

The missing middle

According to the Augar panel, the missing middle in the post-18 education system is level 4-5 – especially level 4-5 technical education – reflecting progression from level 3 straight to level 6. But from the perspective of adult basic skills to level 6, the missing middle is level 3.

In May 2018, the Department for Education stated: “We recognise that 19 to 23 learners who do not have a level 3 qualification could benefit from the same T level programme as 16- to 19-year-olds.”  And in its consultation on post-16 level 3 and below qualifications, the DfE says its aim is to get more people to level 3.

T levels are full-time level 3 programmes. Under Augar, tuition would be free for 19- to 24-year-olds seeking a first full level 3. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine 19-24 year-olds participating on full-time T levels if they are reliant on low and irregular earnings from work and low-value bursaries in order to live.

A-level resits

DfE data also shows that only 2,100 19-24 year-olds are enrolled on A levels. Encouraging across-the-board A-level resits would be a mistake but increasing achievement of science, technology, engineering and maths-based A-levels by 19- to 24-year-olds is sensible. Under Augar, tuition would be free for those seeking a first full level 3. But policymakers cannot expect young adults to study full-time or part-time whilst relying on earnings from work and low-value bursaries. 

To remove the financial barriers preventing participation and achievement at first full level 3 though T-levels and Stem A levels by 19- to 24-year-olds, access should be granted to the nationally administered system of maintenance loans and grants for students on full-time and part-time level 4-5 technical education courses.

As most students would attend their local FE college, maintenance support should be equivalent to the lower living-at-home rate that HE students receive.

Mark Corney is a post-16 education and labour market consultant

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