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Time to give learners a tax break

Mick Fletcher casts an envious eye over schemes which promote study in other European countries

Time, not money, is the biggest barrier to taking up learning opportunities for many people. Studies consistently show that lack of time rather than inability to pay course fees tends to top the list.

This should not be surprising given that FE fees are generally much less than most people spend on holidays or even gym membership. There are constant reminders that we are increasingly cash-rich but time-poor, working the longest hours in Europe. Yet discussions about encouraging participation prioritise cash not time.

In one sense, of course, time is money. Time studying is time not spent earning. Young people juggle part-time work and (nominally) full-time study. The new adult learning grants (ALGs), which offer pound;30 per week to eligible 19 to 30-year-olds, are an interesting forward-looking development. They are not as a maintenance grants but an incentive to learn. Recipients are expected to study full time and work.

Other European countries think much more about time for learning. For instance, the Swedish Insurance group, Skandia, manages privately-funded learning accounts to help pay for time off. In participating firms individuals can pay a proportion of their pre-tax income into a fund managed by Skandia and firms can also contribute.

If it is mutually-agreed learning, employer and employee contributions can be used; if it is not related to the firm employees use their own part of the fund over which they have complete control.

This ability to fund a sort of mini-sabbatical is picked up in legislation in the Netherlands and in collective agreements in Germany. In both countries the state encourages the arrangements, and provides a legal and administrative framework - such as the right to apply pre-tax income to the fund - but does not invest public money.

Ministers have made a modest step towards supporting educational leave with the right to time off for unqualified young workers. This right only covers a few workers, however, and ones with perhaps little inclination and the least ability to assert their rights to it. It has also introduced the very generously-funded employer training pilots (ETPs) where the state reimburses the employer for the wage costs of unskilled employees undertaking training. Although the scheme has had some success in encouraging training in firms that had not previously provided any it is unlikely that such a model could be extended more broadly.

What is missing is any attempt to support ordinary employees who, we are told, will need to train and retrain constantly throughout their working lives; and also take greater responsibility for organising and paying for that training. Some encouragement, perhaps through tax relief, for voluntary schemes along the Skandia model, might be a start.

Mick Fletcher is research manager at the Learning and Skills Development Agency. A fuller version of this article will appear in the June LSDA Briefing

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