The review, part of the 2003 lifelong learning strategy, reserves its harshest verdict for poor communication with students. "The lack of clear information, advice and guidance (IAG) represents a failing of the current system of learner support," it states.
"The provision of IAG on learner support is fragmented, there are gaps in provision as well as duplicate and inconsistent information, and the key stakeholder interactions are unstructured. There is a major opportunity to improve the nature of the IAG and the efficiency of its communication and dissemination to learners and potential learners."
The Executive is now setting up a delivery group to tackle the problems.
Among its priorities will be to ensure more accurate and consistent information is made available to learners. Links between student support and the benefits system are described as "a significant complexity and, for some potential students, a barrier to undertaking learning".
The review, however, does not yet propose to meet one of the main objections of colleges to the present system, which is that it disadvantages part-time students who are the fastest growing group in both further and higher education. The Executive funds 280,000 full-time students in both further and higher education, in varying ways, but there is no similar support for the 400,000 part-timers (2001-02 figures).
The review suggests that "there is no real reason to believe there is a suppressed demand due to funding constraints". But it acknowledges the evidence is not complete. "There remains a need to identify whether there are barriers to part-time learning, and whether these relate to funding or to other possible causes."
The Executive is to review the research on this issue.
The report also acknowledges research findings that "financial disadvantage is one barrier . . . that affects individuals' decisions to participate in post-compulsory education (which) can be perceived as a risky investment decision, especially for low income students."
The Executive is taking some immediate steps to sort out anomalies in grants and allowances for FE and HE students. But changes involving greater financial implications, such as more support for part-time students, will have to await the Executive's 2006 spending review.