In a new report on loans for lifelong learning, all contributors agree that there should be an entitlement to a range of support available from grants and fee-waivers to commercial loans, depending on individual circumstances. But there is no "one size fits all solution".
Although most researchers see the absence of loans in FE as a barrier to participation one, Professor Claire Callender, of South Bank University, says they are not the answer. In fact, loans could deter students from FE, creating problems even bigger than those now exposed in higher education.
Some researchers conclude that a single system of student support is better than a separate one for FE and HE.
Nigel Brown, an independent consultant, argues that an HE-style loan system for post-16 students could be viable. But he is concerned that students taking out a loan for an access course to HE would get into further debt at university. Grants might suit those from lower socio-economic groups who would be put off FE by the idea of debt.
Ronnie Ogier, a former college principal, says that the cost of lifelong learning should be shared - between the individual and the employers and the state which indirectly benefit.
Her solution is a mixed system of grants and loans. There should be no fees for learners studying for qualifications up to level 2 (GCSE equivalent). Loans to meet tuition costs should be introduced for adults at level 3. She notes that there is "considerable antipathy" in FE towards loans.
Professor Callender argues trenchantly against loans, and says they are flawed. They are a device for borrowing against future earnings, yet economic returns on the qualifications obtained in FE are much lower than for degree students. HE students most likely to be in debt, and to have the bigger debts, were those from low-income families, and lone parents. Those disadvantaged before they went to university ended up with the greatest debt.
Many more FE than HE students were from low-income backgrounds, and were more likely to be wary of getting into debt.
"It would be ironic if New Labour ignored the lessons learned from student loans in higher education and introduced them into further education," she said.
Mick Fletcher, research manager of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, who edited the report, said: "Universal grants for all students may be desirable, but is clearly not feasible as there are limited funds in the public purse. But if more people are to participate in learning, ways of removing financial barriers must be found."
Loans similar to those for undergraduates could be the answer. "It is not equitable that undergraduates can access loans, whereas adults in further education cannot.
"But students must see a tangible benefit in return for the financial risk involved. A 'one-size-fits all' solution clearly won't work: a mixture of grants and loans is needed, with greater financial support for those studying for lower-level qualifications."
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