‘Why my college has made adult education free’

Waiving fees for all courses up to level 2 could trigger a resurgence in lifelong learning, says principal Andy Forbes

Andy Forbes

Why my college made adult education free

Working in London, it soon becomes apparent that there are two sets of Londoners. One is highly educated, upwardly mobile and generally well off. In contrast, the other is stuck in a low-income, low-skills trap, which is difficult to escape from. Typically with the latter group, all adults in the household work to keep their heads above the water, and quite often each adult has more than one job.

The College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London serves this second London; a London which aspires to a better life, but needs to get better skills and qualifications to have any chance of success. Since 2011, government policy has been to make more and more adults contribute to the cost of their education and training, either by paying fees or by taking out loans to cover the cost. As a result, we’ve seen the number of adult students coming to college decline annually, despite all our efforts. Five years ago, we had over 24,000 enrolments; this year, we’ll have just over 12,000.

Plummeting enrolments

Ironically, as unemployment has fallen, our adult enrolments have continued to plummet. In some ways, it was easier to reach unemployed people than the new generation of workers, who may be employed but are desperately short of money and – crucially for education – short of time as well. Many of them work shifts, and their hours can change at short notice. Many have contracts without a fixed number of working hours each week, including zero-hours contracts where they may have no work at all during some periods.

This is why the change to the Education and Skills Funding Agency's funding rules to enable us to offer free courses to low-paid adults is so important. And this is why it’s prompted us to take the bold step of providing all of our courses up to and including level 2 for free next year to low-paid adults.

Faced with falling enrolments, we have already experimented this year by offering free introductory courses for adults, which has led to over 1,000 extra enrolments, with an average of 40 per cent of those enrolled opting to go on to a full-time course. This has proved to us what we already suspected: that the appetite for learning is as strong as ever in our local communities and that cost is the most significant barrier.

Removing barriers

Our view is very simple: we believe social mobility begins with education, and we are determined to remove the barriers to accessing education for adults trapped in low-paid, low-skilled work.

So we’ve done some sums and calculated that what we lose in fee income we’ll gain in extra enrolments, and we now have the confidence that, with devolution of adult education budgets just around the corner, we can reverse the downward trend of the past few years. The Mayor of London’s Skills for Londoners strategy, released last week, promises to go even further in lifting the income threshold for low-paid adults to get their education for free. At last we can plan ahead with the certainty that our fee strategy is in tune with the objectives of our funding body.

We are optimistic that offering free courses will attract hundreds back into education, and if the policy continues, we hope to see a revival of adult evening classes and a resurgence of all kinds of adult education. From our perspective, it’s a win/win scenario, and about time, too.

Andy Forbes is principal of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London

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