Unless you’ve been in hiding over the past week or so, you will have heard or read about the huge changes the Government has made to its policy on student loans in further education. It’s a complicated policy, so I thought it would be worth reiterating what it is that we’ve actually won.
To recap, the Government is planning to introduce student loans in England for students aged 24 and older studying at level 3 or above. In other words, anyone aged 24+ wishing to take A levels, or a BTEC level 3, or an Access to Higher Education course, or a higher level apprenticeship, would have to take out a student loan to cover 100% of their fees. Whilst the scheme is still going ahead, we have for the time being won some big concessions after some sustained lobbying work.
Win #1 We said that the FE loans policy would have a disproportionate impact on women, who often return to education later after having a family. The Government has now decided that loans will be written off for students who take an Access to HE course, and then go into higher education. A huge majority of those studying on Access to HE courses are women – and account for around 43% of all those affected by the policy.
Win #2 We said that a HE-style loans system was entirely unsuitable for further education, particularly considering the lack of financial support available to FE students. The Government has announced a new £50 million bursary fund for vulnerable learners.
Win #3 We said that, without a robust and well-resourced information, advice and guidance system, people aged 24 and over would be deterred from entering into further education given the precarious fees and funding system. The Government has now announced that information, advice and guidance programmes will be improved for older learners.
Win #4 The government have announced a capital investment project in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths facilities in Further Education Institutions.
We should all be incredibly proud of what we have achieved in getting the Government to finally listen and address some of the concerns we have all been setting out. We know that this policy is still deeply flawed, but this was a real example of the power of the student movement; acting smartly and strategically in order to allow more people access to the education they need. For some, it will mean the difference between going to college, and not, between entering higher education, and not. Make no mistake: this is a hugely significant success, and we achieved it together.
Of course, in many ways, this is a common sense victory: the Treasury would actually have been very unlikely to see much if any of the loan debt repaid given the even bigger levels of debt built up when the learner went into HE. The new policy recognises this fact and, crucially, eliminates the perceptual issues around student loan debt that we knew would be so damaging - particularly given our concerns about the grossly inadequate support for Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) on FE loans for learners.
But we know that we cannot afford to be complacent - the concessions we have won do not make the policy acceptable in any way, and we all need to continue to make the case for a truly accessible and properly funded tertiary education system for younger and for older learners. We also need clarity on the detail behind the proposal – especially around the following issues:
What constitutes a ‘Higher Education programme’? We clearly need this to be as broad as possible.
What constitutes ‘completion’ of the HE programme? For instance, it would be of massive concern to NUS if completion only occurred if the course is passed, given that this could leave people who do not manage to pass the course to effectively suffer twice for doing so.
How will this policy affect apprentices? After all, they are workers first and foremost, and could find themselves in the ludicrous position of effectively being forced into a position to take out a loan just so they can go to work.
It is also paramount that we gain an understanding of whether there are any conditions on learners repaying loans if there is a gap between studying for an Access to HE course and starting on an HE course.
Over the next few weeks and months, we will be pushing on these issues, and others - while continuing to make the broader arguments for increased investment in our futures. There is still a long way to go, but we have proved that we can have a huge impact on this policy, so we know we can make a difference.
I personally believe that the scale of what we have achieved here is equalled by the method in which used to achieve it. Those of you at Students’ Unions 2012 would have heard NUS President Liam Burns speak of a ‘new radicalism’. Well this campaign so far has proved to be a perfect example. Smart campaigning, activities that resonate both with our members and the general public, communicating complex issues in a way that everyone can understand and engage with. I know as well as anyone that there are people who would not choose to describe taking on ministers in meetings, and organising mass lobbies as ‘radical’ in the traditional sense, and perhaps they’re not. But the outcome is radical, and it is as simple as that. Through using the right ideas for the right campaigns, and knowing how to express our ideas to different audiences, we can demonstrate that we are no longer just shouting loud, but shouting loud and clear.
Particular praise must go to all of you who took part in the national constituency lobby we ran at the end of June – and to all of you who have been raising the issue before and since then. Making this case clearly and thoughtfully, you deserve absolute credit for this success*.
So well done all of you - and let's keep the momentum building all the way up to our national demonstration in November!
* extra extra special shout-outs go to the students' unions at… Bromley College, Bradford University, Cornwall College, Sheffield City College, Wakefield College, Worcester College of Technology, Cambridge Regional College, Isle of Wight College, Walsall College, Manchester College, Coleg Gwent City of Newport, Sussex University, Bournemouth University, Hull College, Leeds City College, Burton and South Derbyshire College, Hull University, Plymouth College of Art, Mid Kent College, Dudley College, Kent University, Queen's University Belfast, Bradford College, City and Islington College, University Of Derby, Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, Leicester College, Burton and South Derbysire College, Angus College, Open University, Dudley College, Oxford University, Canterbury College, Leeds Metropolitan University and all the others who have done so much on this!