FE minister Matthew Hancock has reneged on a pledge by his predecessor to offer extra support for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects when the system of loans and fees for adults is launched this year.
Former FE minister John Hayes had promised that capital funding would be made available in 2013 to support subjects that have high equipment costs, amid fears that colleges and training providers would have to charge higher fees, which would deter students.
But, responding to a question from shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden, Mr Hancock said that over-24s taking level 3 courses, who face paying the full costs of their courses through loans from September, would have to wait for support for STEM subjects.
"We have looked at the options for using capital funding to strengthen the incentives for learners eligible for 24-plus advanced learning loans to take up courses in STEM subjects," he said in a written parliamentary answer. "Data on the take-up of loans in the first year of introduction (2013-14) will inform our conclusions and the action we decide to take."
He said that students should be informed about the benefits and higher financial returns from STEM subjects, and since they would be protected from the up-front costs, he suggested that there would not be big barriers to students enrolling.
Research carried out for the 157 Group last year, however, said that students choosing STEM subjects would face fees 30 to 40 per cent higher than other subjects, and that there would be an even greater premium for agricultural programmes.
Mr Marsden claimed that the wait-and-see approach is "extremely damaging". "Everybody knows that if you're going to maintain or expand STEM subjects, which is what everybody wants, then you have to have some sense of certainty," he said. It comes on top of a lack of any widespread promotion of FE loans, which the government's own impact assessment said would be crucial to their success, he added.
Surveys of employers show that 42 per cent of businesses struggle to find staff with the STEM skills they need. Professor Matthew Harrison, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that 8 per cent of all engineering qualifications are for over-24s on level 3 courses - the highest rate among STEM subjects - which the sector could not afford to lose in a time of high demand.
"Just saying, `We will monitor the situation' - I think that's highly risky," he said. "If a college finds its provision unviable, it will have to close it, and reopening it later is prohibitively expensive." Finding suitably qualified staff after earlier making them redundant would be a particular problem, he added.
Instead, Professor Harrison said ministers should take the same approach as for higher education: finding extra funding to support high-cost "strategically important and vulnerable subjects". "There was a fantastic opportunity to take a well-established approach into FE and it hasn't happened," he said.