FE Loans: Going Away? On Hold? Or, Just Biding Their Time?

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In an extended and adapted version of a recent blog for the Campaign for Learning’s website, Mike Cooper considers just where 24+ Advanced Learning Loans are now, and may be heading.

24+ Advanced Learning (‘FE’) Loans have been around for several years; they’re into their third annual series. Last summer, BIS proposed (amongst other things) to expand their scope ‘downwards’ regarding both the age-range and levels criteria.

After long silence, the government response came just before the General Election purdah period. Several proposals were resolved (e.g., removing the cap on the numbers of concurrent Loans, and transferring Higher Nationals to BIS/SFA funding and thus bringing those into scope – the first a ‘yes’, and the second a ‘no’). However, the ‘downwards expansion’ decision was kicked into familiar long grass, until the autumn’s planned Comprehensive Spending Review, apparently in order to align with a major review of Adult Education funding.

Not long before the response appeared, a Campaign for Learning seminar explored the proposals. Some wider mysteries were considered, too, on that occasion. In fact, those matters may well be rather bigger, wider and more significant than just the proposals in that 2014 consultation.

In a nutshell, the Adult Skills Budget has been and is shrinking: rapidly, substantially, and probably for some years to come if not permanently. The Treasury’s budget for the 24+ Advanced Learning Loans is expanding in response – although not equally, nevertheless significantly.

So: a burning question has to be about why Loans take-up (allocations requested by and given to providers, numbers of applications and amount of spend) has been so low, and so slow to grow? If indeed ‘FE loans are a failed policy’, as some like David Hughes of NIACE would maintain, then – in what way? And for what reasons?

The latest ASB reduction (average 24%) follows many years of regular and substantial cuts. Provision, staffing and other capacity has been lost; more will follow – with considerable impact for learners, provider organisations, staff, communities and others.

Howls of outrage, protest and despair about this have to be seen against an often lukewarm and sometimes downright hostile FE sector attitude to Loans, though. Since they can legitimately be used as a significant mitigating factor in many cases, this is puzzling. Here are some salient points.

  • The first year’s ‘use it or lose it’ Loans budget of £130m was badly underspent, with no roll-over. Awkward – for everyone bar the Chancellor.
  • More awkward still, this year’s tripled Loans budget (£400m) seems likely to be even more greatly underspent this year, with a consequent huge further funding loss to the sector.
  • Not only are fewer providers offering Loans this year, the proportion of those v. all ASB-funded providers has dropped, too.
  • Tellingly, despite most providers’ 24+ Loans facilities increasing significantly (as SFA tries to close the gap), the proportion of that against ASB allocation is actually slightly down, on average, nationally. In other words, managing Loans funding to help plug provider ‘funding gaps’ is even less successful now.
  • And perhaps most tellingly of all, contrasts between individual providers in their approaches to Loans (e.g., requesting or growing Loans facilities, sensibly adjusting provision patterns, and effective marketing/IAG) are more and more striking. Some are forging ahead, some are falling further behind.

That last point is particularly piquant. Admittedly, not all providers can use the current Loans for their current offer. Or at least, not yet; some adaptation of their provision could often be considered, probably. And where their provision does qualify for Loan funding, steps are possible to maximise them for the benefit of all. There are striking examples of imaginative, genuine success in doing that – amongst both colleges and independent training providers.

Yet many other providers remain slow on the uptake, rather reluctant, or plain resistant. Overall, it seems clear that FE overall isn’t always capitalising on Loans as a partial replacement funding-stream for ASB, or planning for ways that might allow them to allow them to do so. Loans may never be a like-for-like replacement for ASB funding; but they’re certainly ‘not to be sneezed-at’, either. Few providers can afford to be complacent, or resistant.

One rather different question still seems to arise amongst some providers: will FE Loans disappear altogether (as did their use for Apprenticeships)? That seems very unlikely, considering the economy. Moreover, the fact that (like HE Loans) they’re a Labour idea suggests not, as well.

The picture of ASB funding decline against a rising Loans budget is both clear and stark. Even if the ‘downwards expansions’ (into the 19-23 age-range, and for some Level 2 courses) don’t actually happen, there’s still a lot to play for, under the current criteria.

So, it’s a mystery just why so many FE providers appear to be well behind the curve, with cries of “Learners won’t like the idea!” and “No national marketing campaign!” as their rationales. As the figures for, and practice of, some providers (across all sub-sectoral types) show, the former assertion is untrue, where Loans IAG is properly handled – thus also largely invalidating the later explanation.

In short, then: Loans are here, and are growing, in response to shrinking ASB money. Envisioned positively, they can provide a valuable counter-measure against rapidly shrinking adult learning funds (and thus vanishing provision, staff cuts, site closures, etc.). Implemented properly, learners like them, take them up and make good use of them.

The FE sector as a whole needs urgently to understand this, accept it and act on it – as some signal success-stories have already done.

 

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