Labour warns of 'scars' in FE loans system

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Opposition fears 'more complex' applications could lead to delays

Shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden has criticised the readiness of the Student Loans Company to process "more complex" FE loan applications when they begin next year.

In a Commons debate on higher education and FE fees this week, Mr Marsden warned that there is a risk of more of the "scars" caused by failings in the system for HE loans, which have led some students to experience long delays.

"The system is inevitably more complex than HE loans because of the varying start dates, course durations and the costs of FE courses, and no central administration similar to that of Ucas has been entrusted to the Student Loans Company," Mr Marsden said. "Many honourable members bear the casework scars from that organisation, and there are no pilots in place to trial the new system."

HE minister David Willetts objected, saying: "We sorted it out."

But Mr Marsden rejected the claim. He said that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills expected a fall in student numbers of at least 20 per cent and perhaps up to 45 per cent. "That will hit learners old and young alike as the viability of college courses is affected," he said.

He urged business secretary Vince Cable to listen to his party's former education spokeswoman, Baroness Sharp, who said earlier this year: "I cannot understand why we, as a government, why on earth we are pushing forward with loans for level 3... I really think that if we are concerned about social mobility, it's very important that we try to overturn it."

About two-thirds of the students who will be affected by FE loans are women, according to official statistics. Mr Marsden quoted university body Million+, which aims to encourage wider university access, saying that the net result would be fewer adult learners and less progression to higher-level courses.

And he added that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills has voiced the concerns of adult apprentices.

"If huge numbers of adults drop out, the government's much-vaunted drive to increase apprenticeships, which is heavily dependent on increases in post-25 apprenticeships, will be in tatters," Mr Marsden said. "The numbers will simply fall off a cliff. That might blow a hole in the government's hubris, but more importantly it will deny the life chances of tens of thousands of adult learners."

However, the debate was dominated by discussion of HE fees, despite the lack of previous opportunities for Parliament to scrutinise the plans for FE. As a result, Matthew Hancock, the new minister for skills, only briefly defended the FE policy. "Rather like with part-time students in HE, the FE loans policy will remove up-front costs," he said.

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