Why students are the new loss adjusters
The abolition of the education maintenance allowance; reduced enrichment funding; the loss of transport subsidies for FE students; the end of full fee remission for learners on "inactive" benefits; cuts to youth services; rising tuition fees. Taken separately, each of these cuts could have serious consequences for FE students. Collectively, the impact could be catastrophic.
"If you miss out on one of the things on the list, you might get by," says Chris Morecroft, president of the Association of Colleges (AoC). "If you're affected by two or three of those things, your life is going to be looking a lot different."
Shane Chowen, vice-president for FE at the National Union of Students, is equally concerned. "We are wondering what the Government is going to offer young people," he says. "It's taking, taking, taking; relentlessly taking away from poor young people in education.
"When you rush through a set of policies like we've seen over the last six months, mistakes will be made. Young people have fallen pretty hard."
The Government's decision to slash FE funding by pound;1.1 billion - a quarter of the skills budget - over the next four years has placed an obligation on colleges to do more for less. The efficiency drive has led to a focus on results, with institutions being expected to produce work-ready learners with the skills required to bolster the UK's economy.
In order to try to balance the books and maintain as much front-line funding for the core business of teaching and learning, supposedly non- essential spending faces the axe. A major victim of this is entitlement funding, which covers tutorials and extra-curricular activities. Students will see their enrichment time reduced from 114 hours a year to just 30 - a move estimated to save as much as pound;640 million.
"That's a cut of 74 per cent. Colleges use that time to give students support in their Ucas applications," Mr Chowen says. "Where else can they learn these skills, like knowing how to present themselves at interviews, or write CVs and covering letters?"
The enrichment hours are also used for a host of extra-curricular activities, including student societies. "Colleges should provide a well- rounded, holistic experience," Mr Chowen adds. "It's not just about learning a subject, but educating the whole person. It keeps people enjoying college life outside the classroom. This is effectively wiping it out."
But it is the impact of the cuts on students' lives after they leave college which most concerns the AoC.
"A lot of guided learning hours are used with students from poor backgrounds who are looking to go to Oxbridge, which the Government supports. One policy the Government wants to see happening is being chopped off by another," Mr Morecroft says. "As well as that, we're going to see a reduction in sexual health education, team-building and support for students suffering from alcohol abuse.
"We try to take young people and educate them in the ways of the world. When I was principal at Worcester College of Technology, in any one year we would have 20-25 homeless students. We would help them with housing benefit and we would liaise with kind landlords to find them somewhere rent-free to live until their allowance came through.
"Colleges will still try to help their students, but how they are going to do it I have no idea," he adds.
Middlesbrough College is keen to support students who will miss out on the education maintenance allowance (EMA) by offering its own replacement fund to help cover the costs of transport, food and course materials, as well as a financial incentive to promote good attendance.
Notwithstanding the prospect of losing out on pound;4.5 million in funding over the next five years, principal Mike Hopkins is confident that the college's stable finances will allow it to help its learners out. "But in the wider sector, not all colleges are going to be able to do that," he says.
Ealing, Hammersmith amp; West London College has reacted to the abolition of the EMA by creating the West London Student Trust, a charity which aims to generate cash through grants and fundraising to offer financial assistance to students.
Deputy principal Tim Hulme believes it is imperative, even in the face of economic pressures, that colleges remain attractive to potential students. "How do we reduce costs while still attracting customers and maintaining our quality?" he says. "For the sector, there is a major transition from being grant-receiving institutions to being education retailers. We have to acknowledge that students have greater expectations.
"We used to be happy if we came out with a piece of paper from a college, but now students are much more demanding in terms of what they expect from an institution," he adds. "They want a whole learning experience - to make friends, take part in sport and join clubs. The loss of the EMA is going to stop that ability to offer the extra bits.
"We deal with some of the most hard-to-reach learners in west London. They use the EMA to support their families, so this is going to have a knock-on effect in the community."
Other key groups at the college who will bear the brunt of the cuts are over-25s on "inactive" benefits such as income support and housing and council tax benefits, and the 140 young carers - "people who have a vital role to play in society", Mr Hulme says - who look after loved ones on top of their college work.
Another pressing problem is cuts in cash available for the teaching of English for speakers of other languages (Esol), with a complex package of alterations meaning funding has effectively been cut by a total of 32 per cent this year. This has had particularly serious consequences at Ealing, Hammersmith amp; West London College, which has students from 100 countries speaking more than 70 languages.
The college's management team is trying to change the way it offers Esol teaching to cope in the new fiscal environment. "There will be key groups of people unsupported in key priority areas," Mr Hulme says. "We are really starting to look at how we can embed Esol in different curriculum areas.
"We are starting to look at not just teaching literacy or numeracy, but offering them through, say, a business or catering qualification."
And while colleges begin to adapt the way they work in order to survive, the AoC is calling on the Government to closely monitor the situation. "The Government must watch for and act upon the signals," Mr Morecroft says. "We really do recognise the need for the Government to make savings, but, given the speed of decision making and sketchy background work, mistakes will be made.
"We're concerned they are not taking into account the cumulative damage to individuals and particular groups. What if you're a single parent in an area where the local authority isn't going to provide support for you to get transport to college?
"Local authorities have to have a transport policy, but there is no obligation to take young people to college. Students need to be supported to stay in education, especially in rural communities. What if they want to do an apprenticeship, but end up going to a nearby sixth-form instead because it's closer, and dropping out after three months? They need to be able to pursue the things they want to pursue," Mr Morecroft adds.
"We don't want to see more social disadvantage, with more Neets (not in employment, education or training) at home; it doesn't make economic sense.
"What will the Government do if there are some very bad signals coming out? They must watch carefully and step in if things aren't going right."
The rapid and wholesale transformation of the education system since the coalition Government came to power suggests its leaders have the courage of their convictions. But the consequences for those at society's margins remain unknown.
WORRIED IN WALSALL - `This will affect participation'
One of the institutions with most at stake is Walsall College. In the last two years, the college has attracted more than 700 extra students.
Its bold move to focus entirely on vocational learning has paid dividends, with principal Amarjit Basi (pictured) expressing his pride at its "incredible growth". It is in the top 10 per cent of colleges in the country for student attainment, despite being in one of its most deprived areas. Sixty per cent of students receive the EMA - a third above the national average of 45 per cent.
Ending fee exemptions for some students, increasing tuition fees and the loss of the EMA are causing anxiety for Mr Basi. "We're really concerned," he says. "This is going to affect participation. We are very proud of what we have done over the last three years - we have had a sparkling impact - and we want to keep up the momentum.
"Some of our students travel a considerable distance. The EMA has been used by many of our students to subsidise their travel costs. We are very concerned.
"We use entitlement funding to extend students' experiences, to raise their self-esteem and support their skills, employability and enterprise. We need the funding to enable us to do that."
- Original headline: Going, going, gone: Why students are the new loss adjusters