Editor's comment

4th November 2005 at 00:00
It is time the Government seriously considered loans for further education.

The NOP survey of 4,000 adults (page 1) shows a willingness among adults to beg, borrow, anything but steal, to pay their way through college.

But there is a huge difference between what they intend and what they will do. Some 54 per cent surveyed said they would pay to further their careers.

But they don't. Their repeated failure to do so has forced the Government to act. It will spend pound;670 million over two years to help bridge the skills gap at work.

As a consequence ministers have to ratchet up fees for non-priority, leisure and other courses. The result is cynicism, since the decision comes within a tough public spending round.

A far more sophisticated and durable funding system is needed. The recent Niace-commissioned independent inquiry into adult learning in colleges called for a combination of loans, targeted cash support and a lifelong learning entitlement for all to their first level 3 (A-level-equivalent) qualification.

It is a preposterous education service that says you can study free to A-level, provided you do it by age 19. What of students who quit for work only to find later that level 3 would benefit their careers? What of people who fail or who have taken the wrong route with best intentions? As the inquiry showed, the blunt instrument of government funding policy also excludes many of them.

Since level 3 is where people gain significant earning (and tax-paying) power, this should be a minimum goal for all. Loans, fees, state and employer support and tax breaks - all should play a part.

John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, was right to ask last week: "Where is the Government's strategy to test the market?"

Where is the evidence that fees will bridge the funding gap?

Few organisations in FE would not support loans. The AoC does as, indeed, it supports a progressive fees policy - provided the necessary checks, balances and safety nets are in place.

The act of taking a loan out for a college course would be a huge vote of confidence in FE, as would be a decision (not just a willingness) to pay fees. It is time Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, and the Department for Education and Skills spelled out how they intend to tackle these issues.

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