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Join up the dots in Esol provision

Sally Hunt believes the most vulnerable have lost out on vital tuition.

The launch of a consultation on arrangements and funding for tuition in English for speakers of other languages (Esol) offers a welcome opportunity for a rethink.

Last October, plans were announced to limit free entitlement to Esol. The University and College Union warned that one consequence would be to exclude many who want and need to study English in order to participate fully in our society. We have pressed the Government hard for a review and we are pleased it has listened.

John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, says he wants to make Esol "foster community cohesion and integration in our communities". This is a positive response to UCU's Save Esol campaign and evidence that the original funding changes hit the most vulnerable.

Government has rightly cited community cohesion as vital to a fairer Britain. Making access to Esol more expensive is not the way to achieve that aim. UCU's research shows that the people most affected by the new fees are often the most vulnerable UK citizens.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) now has the full data from its census of Esol course registrations since September last year. We want to see Mr Denham's department (Dius) and the LSC sitting down with stakeholders and identifying the courses and students affected.

The new national framework must be evidence-based as well as driven by educational, social and economic criteria. We do not want the new community cohesion-focused approach to become an excuse for ditching responsibility for groups that benefit British life and in whom investment reaps dividends across the board.

Those involved in raising demand for language support through the Government's "Unionlearn" know that low-paid workers cannot afford to foot the bill for course fees. There is no government guarantee of extra cash and still no moves to oblige employers to fund quality courses for low- paid workers.

For students not entitled to fee remission, the prospect of paying an even greater proportion of fees (rising from 37.5 per cent to 50 per cent by 2010) is grim.

The bottom line is that voluntary employer contributions do not work because they are unwilling to foot the bill. There must be a legal obligation on employers to pay towards Esol. For too long, too many employers have been happy to reap the rewards but not contribute to the costs.

Ministers may be committed to maintaining high-quality Esol provision, but it is unclear how present proposals will guarantee this. Exploiting the dedication of Esol teachers, or expecting colleges that are committed to their communities to cross-subsidise Esol at the expense of other provision, is no way out of government responsibility.

The importance of Esol to community cohesion is now prominently recognised, as is its immense value to the economy and to family and community life.

Any shortfall in funding from the department should be met not by further fee increases and another round of identifying and reprioritising victims, but by funds from other ministries whose remits include the aims which Esol helps to meet. Joined-up government is the key to delivering Esol classes for all who need them.

Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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