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Sixteen and not-so-sweet

When both sides claim a victory, it's a good bet that we are in industrial relations territory. Not this time. The issue is the now infamous 21-hour rule, and the Government's current intention to replace it with a 16-hour rule. Apart from making all those T-shirts redundant ("I am under 21 and available"), what will the difference be and who has actually won? Does it matter anyway?

A reminder, first, for new readers. Unemployed students are encouraged by colleges to study for qualifications which might help them to find work, or simply because self-improvement is a good thing. The Department of Social Security has limited the availability of unemployment benefit to those who study for fewer than 21 hours per week, while still actively seeking a job. Any more, and you are off the register and on your own.

Such a rule, universally and equitably applied, could be managed, both by the individual and by the college. It hasn't worked like that.

Local benefit officers have applied their own definitions to key parts of the regulations. In some places, enrolment on anything labelled as a full-time course has been an automatic disqualification for benefit on the grounds that you cannot be sensibly looking for work if you are undertaking full-time study.

In other places, local benefit officers have taken it upon themselves to define study, and have counted in the hours when students are doing homework. Using their own judgment, that has sometimes meant that anything more than nine hours per week of formal teaching has been ruled out. Different benefit offices have required varying auditable evidence of job-seeking: letters written, application forms completed, even timetabled sessions of job-finding skills as part of the college programme. Elsewhere, would-be students who are placed for only a handful of hours per week into a full-time course are excluded from benefit as a result of some sort of guilt by association.

It's all been an unholy mess, the result of which has been a wholesale rebuff to thousands of people who wanted to better themselves, to use an old-fashioned term, and to get off the register as quickly as possible, thus saving taxpayers' money.

Since the adult unemployed have been identified by the Government as a priority target group for expansion in college numbers, bewilderment and growing cynicism are added to the sense of hopelessness and betrayal.

So, quite rightly, the sector has been campaigning for a change in the regulations so that a college education and the needs of the economy can be brought into some sort of harmony. The result, after months of hard bargaining, has been the 16-hour rule. The FEFC, which has been doing the negotiating, claims that its victory is based on two important clarifications.

The first is that guided learning hours, as defined in the council's own funding methodology, are to be counted, thus ending confusion about work done in a classroom on the one hand, and private study on the other. The second is that the auditable evidence which will be accepted by benefit offices is the learner agreement, the quasi-contract negotiated between every student and the college. End of arguments, it is claimed, between wily students, egged on by grasping colleges, and bolshie benefit officers or counter clerks.

If it were so, some flags could reasonably be put out, but the ointment is not wholly fly-free. One of the funding council's significant achievements in the funding of college activities has been the swift progress towards a mode-free service, in which definitions of part-time and full-time are redundant. Indeed, little mention is made of courses at all, the emphasis being on programmes of study (not the same thing) and qualifications. Yet the agreement on the 16-hour rule still speaks of full-time students not being eligible for benefit. Can we be sure that no such old hat will be raised by benefit officers? What's more, the newly-drawn instructions refer to the hours in terms which suggest a weekly maximum. Modern college provision has moved away from regular patterns of attendance, the same week in and week out. The whole glory of the funding methodology, and of new ideas of caseloading for lecturers, lies in the flexibility of the individual student's programme. Intensive one week; more relaxed the next. Such an arrangement would seem to deny the student benefit in any week when guided learning hours exceed 16, even if the average over the learning year did not do so.

Perhaps if both sides think they have won, we should let them exult, and look at the students themselves. Have they gained? In some parts of the country, probably, but only because they have previously suffered so grievously. In other parts they will lose, because an enlightened local interpretation will now be converted into a stricter one. Not many corks will pop round here.

The real problem is, of course, one of attitude. Mature students are made to feel that they are a burden. Benefit regulations convey the message that students should be grateful, that they have no rights to continued education. Indeed they haven't, and that is an indictment of the whole system. What mature students want is the chance to study the things most people now undertake at 16-plus and which they chose not to do, or weren't able to, at the time.

If it is right to support 16-year-olds towards better qualifications, it must be right to support adults to the same goals. Not as a privilege grudgingly conceded, but as an entitlement. More reform is needed.

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