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Student travel cuts 'will hit poor'

New belt-tightening rule to axe subsidised journeys is ill-considered and reduces choice of courses, say college leaders

Young people who refuse to study at a college nearest their home will be denied any help with travel costs under new spending guidelines from the Learning and Skills Council.

College leaders have criticised the move which, they say, will hit poorest families hardest. They describe the change in regulations around the pound;112 million budget as "ill-considered" and based on erroneous information.

The LSC insists the aim of the change in funding guidance is to discourage students from taking needlessly long journeys to study if "the same" courses are available nearer home. But Mark Dawe, principal of Oaklands College in Hertfordshire, said there were many reasons other than specific course content for making a student choose one college over another.

"This move seems contradict the principles of learner choice and demand-led funding. Traditionally, funding decisions have been with the institution. This is a retrograde step."

Another principal said: "We subsidise transport to give low income students more choice. Most students pay for transport to college, and learner-support funds give discounts to those on low incomes or from poor families."

It was also "yet again" one rule for schools and HE and another for colleges, she said. The government's last schools white paper which produced the Education and Inspections Act recognised the role of transport in giving greater choice for poorer families.

Meanwhile, in higher education, the pound;3 billion a year spent on student funding allows university students a wider choice of courses other than their "nearest institution". Last Week, John Denham announced a big rise in numbers of HE students entitled to non-repayable maintenance grants.

The Association of Colleges says it will take up the issue of subsidised transport through the Local Transport Bill one of several pieces of legislation announced in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's new list.

Julian Gravatt, AoC finance director, said: "Colleges use transport subsidies to help low income students choose the right course. The LSC guidance implies that this is wrong. This sits oddly with policy in the schools and university sectors where government actively encourages young people to travel and provides assistance to make it possible. We'll be taking this up with LSC."

Some local authorities subsidise transport for students, for example in London, and where this happens colleges could get by with spending less, he said. "Where local government doesn't provide subsidies, what's wrong with colleges filling the gap?"

Further constraints on spending, which have angered college principals, include a warning not to use discretionary learning support to pay fees "except in very special circumstances". But as one college finance director said: "This is ridiculous when you think that universities are expected to use some of their income to pay the fees of poorer students."

However, there will be an extra pound;4.6 million specifically to pay fees for ESOL learners who can't prove they are entitled to statutory fee remission.

Mr Gravatt said evidence from the AoC membership showed that discretionary funds colleges hold play a valuable role in filling the gaps in national entitlements and in helping low-income students with high course-related costs including childcare, transport and materials, plus fees.

"The imbalance between HE and FE is huge when you consider that the Government has budgeted for pound;400 million growth in HE support, compared with a total from the LSC of less than pound;120m."

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