When the government first announced its plans for the new FE loans system, it was criticised for not doing enough for adult learners from poor homes. In a climbdown over key aspects of the reforms, ministers now agree.
FE minister John Hayes admitted that the loans system risked putting some people off taking qualifications as he unveiled measures designed to protect some of the poorest students. He announced pound;50 million of bursaries to help disadvantaged adults with their living costs, pound;20 million of which is new money, and proposed fresh concessions for courses where students face particular difficulties.
Principals and student leaders had been concerned that adults on access to higher education (HE) courses would be disadvantaged by having to take out two sets of loans, one at college and another for their HE course. Now their first loan will be written off when they successfully graduate from their degree.
Mr Hayes also said he would address fears over STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects by proposing a capital fund to pay for equipment in a bid to keep costs down and prevent students from being priced out. However, the proposals do not address the cost of the extra teaching hours that such courses can require.
Asked if the changes mean that the government recognises that adults could be put off FE because of loans for over-24s on level 3 courses, Mr Hayes said: "It is a recognition of that. The whole idea of doing an impact assessment and survey is to make an assessment about the effect of the plans and where we need to mitigate that effect. It's absolutely a recognition of that.
"This is part of a long journey. We have been taking into account our assessment and representations from other bodies to develop our thinking about how this can be best implemented.
"We're not compromising on the principle: we need to get extra investment into the system and loans are one way of doing that. But we are always aware that some groups are under-represented and we don't want to exacerbate that."
The announcement suggested that bursaries would be available for groups such as parents returning to work after bringing up children, people with learning difficulties or disabilities, and ex-military men or women seeking to retrain for civilian life, although Mr Hayes said that these were just some examples of the people who could qualify for support.
The concessions, announced last week, still leave several questions unanswered. Mr Hayes said that the capital support for STEM subjects would be available before 2013, but it is not yet known how much money will be available or whether it will succeed in reducing the cost of provision.
"Who will end up paying for the cost of STEM students?" asked Gordon Marsden, shadow FE minister. "They're at the high end of the scale already and the experience of the HE system suggests that course fees go up quite rapidly."
Mr Marsden also questioned whether the help for access to HE students went far enough, saying that many would not be in a position to progress immediately into HE because of the circumstances of their lives and, in some cases, because of a lack of places.
"Many of them come from difficult backgrounds, and they are being asked to make a commitment to take a university loan as soon as they finish the HE access course," he said. "The sort of people we're talking about are people that things happen to - they have family problems, have to care for relatives and so on. And with the current competition, they may not even get a university place the year after completing their course. They (the government) should look at a period of grace."
Mr Marsden also heavily criticised the process of implementing FE loans, which he called a "constitutional disgrace" in a letter to Mr Hayes, as the government introduced them with only a half-hour debate in Westminster Hall shortly before recess this week.
"I think it's right that there is further parliamentary discussion about the implementation of this," Mr Hayes said in response.
The new proposals include:
- a pound;50 million fund to help disadvantaged mature students with living costs;
- allowing students on access to HE courses to apply to have their FE loans written off once they complete their HE course;
- additional information, including face-to-face careers advice, for those unsure about taking out a loan;
- a forthcoming capital fund aimed at cutting the infrastructure costs of STEM courses to try to ensure they do not become unaffordable.
Original headline: Minister digs deep for poorest in reform U-turn