Fees policy hits Esol enrolment

28th September 2007 at 01:00

English language student numbers are down by thousands as immigrants are `priced out of the market'

THE NUMBER of immigrants learning English at many colleges has collapsed following the introduction of fees, FE Focus can reveal.

September enrolment figures and projections for the academic year suggest some colleges will see numbers for English for speakers of other languages drop by as much as 50 per cent.

While numbers of Esol students have held up in some of the poorest areas fee subsidies continue for people on benefit the hardest hit colleges have lost hundreds and even thousands of enrolments.

Discussions with colleges which responded to an FE Focus snapshot enrolment survey this week provided a clear picture of immigrants having been simply "priced out of the market", as one principal said.

The drop in Esol enrolments is expected to continue through the year, despite schemes such as flexible timetabling and lessons in the workplace for the rapidly growing population from eastern Europe.

New rules on fees mean free English classes are now only available for migrants on benefits or those receiving tax credits.

Oaklands College in Hertfordshire recruited 220 Esol students last year. This year it is expecting half that number.

Two of its level 2 (GCSE equivalent) classes at had 35 students each last year but have now attracted just seven people. Some other classes may have to be postponed.

Rob Reynolds, head of languages at the college, said: "I thought we would take a hit of a third. I think really it's much worse. We've been taking a hit of about 50 per cent."

At Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College, the country's biggest provider of Esol courses, student numbers are expected to be down by nearly 30 per cent. Last year it had 8,000 recruits.

Amarjit Basi, the deputy principal, said potential students had been put off by having to pay fees. "But our biggest concern is for those who can't pay, learners from vulnerable communities such as some of those from Africa, Asia and refugee communities," he said. "These are the learners most in need of English language classes, but without networks and support and finances.

"There are quite clearly learners who want to contribute to the economy and secure work, but this is a significant barrier to them."

Other colleges have told FE Focus that they expect enrolment falls ranging from 17 to 40 per cent.

Before ministers decided to cap funding for Esol, an estimated 500,000 people a year took classes.

But falling enrolment is not universal. In some areas from Manchester to Birmingham to Tower Hamlets in the East End of London colleges reported their student numbers had remained consistent, partly because there were enough immigrants on benefits or claiming tax credits taking up free places.

Many of the hardest hit immigrants are those in low-paid jobs, often in retail and hospitality with responsibility for communicating with customers. Yet the very fact they are in such jobs can render them ineligible for free Esol tuition.

One head of Esol said: "We are able to fill our classes. But there will be people coming through the door who you know have a legitimate need to speak English but, because they are earning a little bit too much, we can't offer them free tuition."

A few colleges reported student numbers had risen. At the Working Men's College in Camden, north London, September enrolment had increased from 600 to 750. Satnam Gill, the principal, said the introducting of fees may have benefited the college because it charges less than most of its competitors.

Bill Rammell, the further education minister, said: "Even though we have tripled funding for English language classes, we do not have a bottomless pit of money to keep up with the constantly rising demand for free classes. That's why free classes will only now be available to certain groups for whom Esol funding was originally intended.

"That still means at least 50 per cent will continue to get Esol free."

The Learning and Skills Council said its priority was to ensure support went to who needed it most.

Comment, page 4

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