SPECIAL funds should be made available to cover transport costs for thousands of students in rural areas, according to a group of government advisers.
Research by the Learning and Skills Development Agency has recommended a new "sparsity uplift" under the Learner Support Fund to help cover the higher cost of travel for students at 160 colleges in rural districts. Up to 10,000 students could benefit, according to the LSDA.
The findings contradict a 2002 funding report that concluded there was no need for an extra allowance for rural students similar to the one on offer in London.
Mick Fletcher, LSDA's head of research, said that while students' travel costs are greater in the countryside, there is no evidence that running a college is any more expensive. He added: "We have established that journeys are longer and more expensive for many students in the countryside, and we think the learner support fund should address that issue."
The report also suggests a change in childcare funding under the learner support scheme. Mr Fletcher said the Learning and Skills Council, which distributes the fund, should take account of the demographic picture at individual colleges, adding: "At the moment, childcare is allocated on the basis of student numbers and deprivation. Our research shows that most claims for help with childcare are from women aged 19 to 39, so we need to focus childcare funding much more on colleges with those kinds of populations."
The report recommended the distribution of residential bursary funds, the needs of internet students and the impact of learner support funds on participation. Mr Fletcher said no extra money would be needed to boost funding in these areas. Instead, he said, the learner support fund should be allocated differently. Also, the September 2004 launch of education maintenance allowances - to give poorer students up to pound;30 a week - will release learner support funding for new areas.
He added: "The EMAs will mean less need for learner support, and a need to focus the remaining fund on those with very high costs - either for longer journeys or for expensive childcare."