Missing the boat on FE loans?

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In an article first published in a slightly different form in Edition 100 of FE Week on 24 April 2014, Mike Cooper of the Policy Consortium considers the situation around 24+ Advanced Learning Loans as they approach their second year of operation – and in particular, the position for those providers who have so far been involved with them very little or not at all.

Quietly, the new round of online applications for 24+ Advanced Learning Loans has opened. Learners over 23 meeting eligibility criteria, taking eligible Level 3 and 4 courses, can get funding for 2014-15 course fees in similar ways to HE loans.

As with the university context, there’s controversy over the principle and the practice. Nevertheless, FE Loans are now an established system, probably for the foreseeable future (even if it’s changeable, as when Apprenticeships were dropped from the scheme earlier this year).

But some providers and learners still need to come to terms with greater learner self-funding. Skills Funding Agency figures for 2013-14, as of late January, suggest that provider engagement with the FE Loans policy and practicalities has been patchy.

Analysis with my Policy Consortium colleague Mick Fletcher of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) combined Loans ‘facility’ and ring-fenced bursary funding shows totals for this year ranging from £7.14 million to £5,500. Among over a thousand providers listed, that’s an average of about £276,500. Without the near 25% of providers who have no Loans allocation at all, the average is near £363,000. As a proportion of these providers’ total 2013-14 SFA funding, that averages around 16%. These are significant figures.

The intriguing aspect may be the ‘patchiness’. Are those providers with no current Loans funding in that position because they offer no appropriate courses, or have no such learners? Or is it their choice? If it’s the latter, then the absence of this income stream seems potentially problematic – both for the organisation and the learners whom they serve. After all, Loans funding can’t be vired: it’s a potential ‘use it or lose it’ income stream.

So, will some providers and learners again ‘miss the boat’, as Mick Fletcher puts it? If providers decided not to engage in the first year, will that now change?

Another of my Policy Consortium colleagues, Carolyn Medlin, was involved in the joint SFA/Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS)initial support programme in 2012-13, with over 1000 participants. She agrees about some ‘missing the boat’, since she saw providers who felt they should bide their time, and may even have hoped that FE Loans might ‘go away’. Certainly, some that she recalls from those occasions do not appear on the SFA’s 2013-14 spreadsheet.

One problem for providers entering the Loans arena from scratch for this new phase is that external support is now far more restricted. Subsidised BIS/SFA workshops and consultancy ended last summer. True, some resources produced for them can still be found. My own experience working on later LSIS and NIACE Loans support initiatives suggests that they won’t be adequate or sufficient, however. As if to underscore this point, some of the providers with the largest Loans funding in 2013-14 were ones that engaged most actively with support activities, last year.

Finally, three recent publications shed further intriguing light on the FE Loans situation.

First, the March 2014 BIS update shows a total of some 60,000 Loan applications to date from Level 3/4 learners, for courses other than Apprenticeships – 40,000 of those for courses other than Access to HE, such as QCF Diplomas and Certificates. Next, the latest BIS research report in this field (No. 159: Tracking the impact of 24+ Advanced Learning Loans) explored levels of awareness, knowledge, understanding and ‘intent’ about loans among providers, employers and learners in 2013. The results are complex, but support the idea that some providers may still be losing out on the potential benefits which Loans could bring, in terms of learners, learning and funding.

Finally, a current BIS consultation looks at proposals to deal with the clash between the current HE loans system and Islamic principles on loans. One established Muslim approach (‘takaful’) is otherwise recognisable as being like credit unions and mutual societies – a proposal that may better open up HE to observant Muslims.

But is such an approach applicable only to HE Loans and Muslim learners? Perhaps there are lessons there for FE, and all learners and communities.

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