Should Further Education For Adults Be Free?

Jeremy Corbyn has announced Labour’s plans to increase Further Education provision and funding for adults by increasing the adult skills budget to £3bn a year, bringing back EMA and student grants for HE, and replacing advanced learner loans and upfront course fees. But is this viable? Is it affordable? And what are the pros and cons of the decision?

The Role of FE for Adults

It’s easy to see why Further Education is important. For many adults it’s a chance to improve their situation. Whether they didn’t get the qualifications they needed at school, they want to change their career or gain further qualifications to progress, or they want to refresh their skills, FE is the place for them to achieve these goals.

There are also many benefits in terms of an adult’s physical and mental wellbeing. Learning new skills and seeing the progress they have made helps increase confidence and feelings of self-worth and positivity. Having the routine of attending classes at certain times on certain days, give structure to their week and makes sure they get out and about. Attending classes also gives them the opportunity to meet new people, make new friends and practice their social skills.

Adult education has many advantages for those seeking to develop their employability and skills, but it also has a positive impact on the economy because the greater the skills in the workforce, the greater the productivity and innovation. Many, however, are fearful of incurring debt through trying to pay for course fees as well as living costs, and the struggle fitting in study with work and home commitments. It is imperative to remember, when we talk about adult education, we talk not only about the 19-23-year-old bracket the government focuses on, or the unemployed trying to get back into work, but those already employed.

Money Matters

We can all agree FE has a valid and important role to play, and yet the adult skills budget was cut by 35% between 2010 and 2015. A loss that caused providers to shorten their provision, reduce the number of places available to those 19+, and resulted in staffing implications. It’s easy to see then, why Corbyn has targeted this area in his manifesto. He is reported as saying, “People of all ages are being held back by lack of funding and this in turn is holding back the economy by depriving industry of the untapped talent of thousands of people”.

Critics worry about the financial repercussions of his claims. Taxpayers also worry about where the extra funds will be found. While adult education is of crucial importance, its budget needs to be carefully balanced against those of health care, social care, infrastructure, and so on.

If you look closely at the current budget, you will see that a lot of funding is available already, especially if you are aged 19 to 23, or unemployed. As long as your course is covered by the ‘legal entitlement’ (a very long list of courses and qualifications from City and Guilds awards to Access to HE Diplomas, and in subjects ranging from Administration and Accounting, to Engineering, Law and Veterinary Science.), and it is the first time you will have achieved at that level, then it is free. Childcare and transport costs are often available for those receiving certain benefits as well. Therefore, it seems there is plenty of support and incentives for those currently seeking to enter the world of work for the first time, or seeking to leave their unemployed status behind.

But what about those who are employed or have already gained qualifications previously? One would assume this area is Mr. Corbyn’s focus. Yet should an adult who is working and wishing to progress or retrain be eligible to receive their further education for free? At the moment, the government will co-fund your course fees, depending on your situation, and if your course is relevant to your career, your employer may help with costs as well.

Whether you think it unfair that employed adults don’t get the same rights and opportunities regarding adult education costs, or wish to see more adults gaining further skills and see this as the way to removing some of the barriers, no one can deny that it may not be financially possible. The media has made it clear that the NHS is struggling, the Health and Social Care budgets have been cut and there’s just not a lot of money floating around.

Conclusion

In an ideal world, employed adults, or those returning for further qualifications, will be able to access the same funding and education, no matter the level, would be free for all. But we don’t live in an ideal world and the money has to come from somewhere. The Treasury doesn’t have a golden goose or a genie to make endless funds out of thin air and so it falls to employers and learners to front some of the costs. Teachers need to be paid their salaries, buildings need to be powered and cleaned, tools and equipment need to be bought.

In my opinion, if Labour – or any other government for that matter – wish to help the further education sector, then they need to put protections in place regarding the adult skills budget, so it can’t be effected by such large cuts in the future. There should be more provision provided for community learning and evening classes, so more adults can fit their learning in around their working lives. Employers should be more motivated to help adults in their employ fit in classes and study for qualifications, which will help further develop their staff’s skills and knowledge, with fee support and flexible working hours to allow them to attend classes. Childcare funding should be available for those who do not receive the requisite benefits and have no family to help.

The government, employers and learners all need to work together to make sure everyone is getting the chance to advance their careers, expand their skill repertoires, increase their ability to contribute to society and their community, and generally better their situation.

Next Steps

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