Further Education students finding it tough in the crisis

Hot on the heels of the release of survey data on the hardship impact of the cost-of-living crisis on university students (TEFS 29th June 2023 ‘More students in jobs as fewer travel first class on the university experience train’ comes more bad news on the plight of students; this time in Further Education. A report this week on the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for students revealed the extent of the ‘Impact of the cost-of-living crisis on FE-Students’

The ten pages present a situation that is horrible and reveals real world experiences that every politician interested in ‘levelling up’ must read. They took evidence from over 700 students and just under 80 colleges and set out a fair representation. If the situation in Higher Education seems dire, then you must read this. They concluded that,

 “The cost-of-living crisis is disproportionately impacting students in FE whilst also contributing to entrenching disadvantage among students, who are losing out on the benefits of further education for skills development and social mobility”.

Underneath the disproportional impact.

Apart from college funding cuts and cuts to support for students, the main reason behind the disproportional impact simply boils down to the fact that, “young people from a disadvantaged background who remain in post-compulsory education are much more likely to study within an FE college”. They are also more likely to have had free school meals and other support in their school years. However, after that the education journey becomes even more perilous. It means that they are more likely to have to take on part-time jobs and the report also concludes that,

“FE students are struggling to prioritise their studies over maintaining jobs and working more hours to make ends meet”.

An earlier report from the Sutton Trust in 2021, “Going Further: Further education, disadvantage, and social mobility”, provides the backdrop to the situation today. They observed that 43% of young people from a more disadvantaged background are likely to attend a further education college, compared to 32% from a more advantaged background.

Cutting student support.

Most students attending colleges are between the ages of 16 to 19. Many do so with aspirations to find good jobs. Others who can, opt to continue with A-levels. But that too can present its own challenges. My personal experience from 1970 was that I had various jobs before taking my A-levels. It was a major challenge that my school failed to acknowledge or understand. I have memories of being exhausted most of the time. I worked from 5am for at a large wholesale fruit and veg warehouse and was often out making deliveries. The somewhat cryptic picture for this posting is in memory of some days I spent bagging potatoes in Warwickshire using an automated conveyor and bagging machine. I had no training and just got on with it. I welcomed the introduction of a universal Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in 2004 although far too late for me. I described the EMA back in 2018 as filling a ‘black hole’ in support for students between 16 and 19. However, support for these students has been drastically eroded since the EMA was cut in 2011. It was replaced by a bursary fund that had a much smaller budget less that one third of the EMA budget. A House of Commons Library report from 2020, ‘16-19 education funding in England since 2010’, gives a good overview of what happened since. They noted that,

“Funding for FE learner bursaries has continued to be cut since 2011, and the total programme funding for 16-19 providers fell from £6.09 billion in 2013-14 to £5.49 billion in 2018-19 – a reduction of 10% in cash terms and 17% in real terms”.

This might lie at the root of the current problems that were inevitable.

FE students neglected.

In March the same APPG released its findings on the impact of the cost-of-living on students, that focused on students in higher education, and realised that much more needed to be done to look at FE students. They worked closely with another APPG for FE and lifelong Learning and the Association of Colleges.

The FE colleges are regulated by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (EFSA) and, on the face of it, there appears to be some support available for FE students. But the APPG reports that this is not adequate. It appears that the EFSA is not looking hard at the effectiveness of government support and the rising hardship. Evidence elsewhere is there to plainly see and the APPG have done a great service for many students.

The evidence has been mounting for some time.

Last December, the House of Commons Library reported on the stark choices facing students as the value of their income dropped starkly in ‘How is the rising cost of living affecting students?’. Simply put, any small increase in maintenance loans had been comprehensively wiped out. This was to the tune of minus 7.2%, despite a rise of 2.3% in September based upon a completely out of date inflation forecast. With no functioning government in Northern Ireland, there was no 2.3% inflation uplift in September, and the net hit was worse at minus 9.3%! However, their report falls short in failing to observe the inevitability of students adapting by taking on more hours in paid employment.

The OFS, chocolate teapots and mahogany frying pans.

The idea and design of these items is sensible and hold out the promise of being potentially useful. Unfortunately, they fail in practice due to the wrong approach to their manufacture. They have become a metaphor for being useless in practice. The House of Commons Library might be forgiven for missing out on the rising demands on students increasing their burden of paid employment, but there was no such excuse for the Office for Students (OfS).

This omission was strangely compounded in the OfS report, ‘Studying during rises in the cost of living’ (pdf) that emerged as late as March of this year. This summarised the results of a survey of 4,021 students from the Savanta (Youthsight) panel of students. It was large enough to highlight the rise in paid work undertaken by students in term-time seen elsewhere. But like the proverbial ‘chocolate tea pot’ it failed by not asking the straight question. Despite concluding that most students were receiving some form of student finance, it seems 65% thought this covered their “day-to-day costs” either completely (25%) or mostly (40%). This still leaves over a third such students living with an apparent shortfall. The report fails to mention the evidence from the ongoing ‘Student Academic Experience Surveys’ from AdvanceHE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). These have provided valuable evidence for several years and should not be sidelined by the OfS (see TEFS 29th June 2023 ‘More students in jobs as fewer travel first class on the university experience train’). Similar work should be undertaken urgently for FE students.

A final word.

This goes to one respondent to the APPG survey. It encapsulates the dilemma faced by students who are opting out of education on financial grounds.

“I intended on getting an apprenticeship, but the apprenticeship rate doesn’t compare to my current wage, so I am debating whether to continue studies”.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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