The Department for Education confirmed last Friday that, as part of its second consultation reviewing post-16 level 3 qualifications, “some adult learners, in particular 19- to 23-year-olds without level qualifications, could benefit from the same T-level programme as 16- to 19-year-olds".
Where a full-time, two-year T level is the right choice for an adult, the programme should be no different to those taken by 16- to 19-year-olds, it adds, going on to say that T levels for adults will be funded at national level and not subject to devolution.
In addition, work placements will be integral to adults studying a T level, although their duration could be reduced by up to 50 per cent to reflect the prior experience of adults compared with young people.
So far, so revolutionary. Yet, a fundamental confusion arises.
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The issue with adults and full-time study
The consultation then goes onto to argue that "most adults will not be able to commit to a full-time two-year course". The conclusion, according to DfE, is that modular delivery will be essential to support the accessibility of T levels for adults.
The consultation is unclear whether 19- to 23-year-olds are the same or different to 29- to 33-year-olds or 39- to 43-year-olds when studying T levels.
The Review of Post-18 Education and Funding published in May 2019 discussed post-18 level 4 to 6 higher education – prescribed and non-prescribed – and 19+ further education at level 2 and 3. This was a tremendous advance.
Unfortunately, the FE sector has a habit of viewing adults in further education as an undifferentiated group of learners, thereby communicating that there is no difference between how a 20-year-old might acquire a first full level 3 and how a 50-year-old might do it. This is simply incorrect.
Currently, there are about 1.45 million students enrolled on level 4 to 6 degrees. Of these, 1.25 million study full-time. However, 1.1 million of them are aged between 18 and 24, with just 140,000 students aged 25 and over.
By comparison, there are perhaps 820,000 adults aged 19 and over studying level 2 and 3 further education courses. Of them, just 160,000 study full-time.
What this means is that full-time study is neither a large-scale activity for older adults in higher education – nor for adults in further education.
Access to maintenance loans
The FE White Paper must explain why 1.1 million 18- to 24-year-olds study full-time levels 4 to 6 in higher education, but only 100,000 19- to 24-year-olds study full-time in further education.
The explanation is obvious. Those aged between 18 and 24 in universities and FE colleges studying level 4 and 6 courses are entitled to maintenance loans and those aged between 19 and 24 in FE colleges studying level 2 and 3 courses are not.
The target audience for adult T level is those without a first full level 3. Entitlement to free education already exists for 19- to 23-year-olds to achieve a first full level 3. The prime minister announced that the entitlement to free education for a first full level 3 will be extended to all adults, including 24-year-olds.
Consequently, the cost of provision will not prevent 19- to 24-year-olds from enrolling on full-time T levels. But the lack of full-time maintenance loans and the inability to claim universal credit will.
For 19- to 24-year-olds, the FE sector should look at access to full-time maintenance loans as the solution to participation on T levels before automatically jumping to modular delivery.
Of course, 19- to 24-year-olds enrolling on full-time level 4 and 5 vocational sub-degrees – delivered in FE colleges as well as universities – have no such problem in accessing maintenance support. They have an entitlement to full-time maintenance loans.
Naturally, some 19- to 24-year-olds might wish to combine a job with a part-time T level. Once again, however, the FE sector needs to consider whether modular delivery will be a sufficient reform to support earning and part-time T-level study.
Without extra income, low paid 19- to 24-year-olds will always prioritise getting an extra shift before studying an extra module. Access to part-time maintenance loans could reduce the pressure to put earning before learning.
In the academic year 2018-19, part-time students on level 6 first degrees or courses equivalent to 25 per cent of a full-time course were eligible to supplement their wages through part-time maintenance loans.
In the academic year 2019-20, maintenance loans were extended to students on part-time level 4 and 5 vocational sub-degrees.
Equality of access
As part of the levelling-up agenda, it would be ironic if low-paid 19- to 24-year-olds combining a job with a part-time vocational sub-degree or higher national qualification could access part-time maintenance loans, but a low-paid 19- to 24-year-old combining a job with a part-time modular T level was denied such access.
The government has promised to consider extending full-time and part-time maintenance loans to level 4 and 5 higher technical qualifications as part of the spending review.
Mark Corney is a post-16 policy consultant