ONE of the biggest challenges for an incoming Labour Government would be to end the "scandal" of the poor financial support for students in further education.
Malcolm Wicks, lifelong learning minister, said that if re-elected, Labour would address what he described as the class bias between FE and higher education students.
In an exclusive interview with FE Focus, Mr Wicks said Labour would have failed in their second term if it had not come to grips with this issue.
"In education, most representation within my constituency and many others has come from those largely middle class students who say that they have to pay what amounts to about one-quarter of their tuition fees. They say it is vastly unfair that they have to pay back student loans.
"But the biggest scandal is those working class people, mainly in their 20s who want to get education, training, skills, qualifications. Compared with the university student they do not have that infastructure.
"The real test of the second term of a Labour government is how we perceive that class bias in the education system and how we can give help to those who want to better themselves. That is the challenge."
He said the Department for Education and Employment was looking at "all the options." Chief of these is a loans system for FE students. He accepted there would be "huge" resource implications, but the challenge for ministers was to develop equity and fairness between students.
"The test of democracy is, yes, to listen to the articulate, but also to listen to the silent voices."
John Brennan, diector of development at the Association of Colleges, said he was delighted that Labour would give priority to improving student support for both young people and adults.
He said the model already existed - education maintenance allowances. These, currently being piloted, give young people staying on in full-time education after year 11 up to pound;40 a week, depending on their parents' income. Dr Brennan said the AOC had been pressing for them to be extended nationwide.
"They have improved participation rates, led to better student behaviour and commitment, and we think they will soon show up in greater student achievement.
"FE students are poorly treated compared with HE students. There is not a great deal of difference between what you have to spend as an HE student, and one in FE."
Figures about cost would have to be speculative but a national roll-out of EMAs would cost around pound;450-500 million. There was no problem with the principle of loans providing they were pro rata. That would add a minium of pound;500m for full-time adults, plus something for part-timers.
"So we are talking about something in excess of pound;1 billion to put students on the same basis. It's huge but that is where we want to go."
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said they would support a grant-based entitlement to level 3, irrespective of age, based on EMAs, but with additional support for child care, disability and travel.
"We say that loans should be for professional study, level 4 and above. Below that they should be available to supplement basic grant support. And there would have to be income-contingent repayments."
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