Treasury expected to balk at further education loan plans

Gavin Williamson hails plans for ‘lifelong loan entitlement’ but Treasury is hostile to expanding system

The government’s plans for a “lifelong loan entitlement” for further education study – a key part of its new skills white paper for England – are predicted to run into stiff opposition from the Treasury.

The white paper says the loan entitlement will be equivalent to “four years of post-18 education” when it launches in 2025, and claims it will “transform the funding system so it is just as easy to get a loan for a higher technical course as it is for a full-length university degree”.

But the proposals, announced by Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, include no firm funding commitments. With the Treasury hostile to expanding the system of loans for higher education, under which all outstanding graduate debts are borne by the government, many in the further education (FE) sector are dubious that students will receive support at the same level.

Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said the government’s plans were a “work in progress” and noted that the new loan system would not begin until after the next general election.

“We look forward to the outcome of the comprehensive spending review for the more ‘revolutionary’ aspects of what was promised previously, in terms of better supporting individuals who will experience several career changes throughout their lives in future,” Bewick said.

“We’re not quite there yet with this white paper, as it falls quite a bit short of helping to achieve a more cradle-to-grave, universalist, approach to lifelong learning.”

The Department for Education (DfE) also released several other long-awaited documents affecting universities in England, including a letter from Williamson to the Office for Students to redirect funding from the higher education teaching grant, worth £1.4bn a year, towards health, science and technology courses from next year.

Williamson said the move would “increase support for strategic subjects such as engineering and medicine, while smashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as media studies”. But it would also remove the extra funds received by London institutions to reflect their higher costs, creating more financial difficulties.

Elsewhere, the government gave its interim response to the 2019 Augar report on student finance, which recommended cutting university tuition fees to £7,500 a year. The response gave few details other than that a final response would be included in the spring spending review.

Williamson did reveal that tuition fees would be frozen at £9,250 next year, ahead of the spending review, while the interim response left issues such as minimum entry requirements for admission on the table.

Williamson also gave his backing to reform of the university admissions system, which could mean students will be offered places only after they have received their A-level results.

The radical shift, first revealed in the Guardian, is the subject of a further consultation involving the DfE and the OfS. Williamson backed the change as increasing fairness for disadvantaged students.

Presenting the skills white paper to the Commons, Williamson told MPs: “Insofar as long-term plans are concerned, we are going to move to a more coherent, simpler funding model that we are going to design together with the sector. We will be consulting on this later in the spring.”

Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said: “Overall, funding does not live up to the hype from ministers. Decisions have been delayed yet again, leaving colleges without the secure settlements they need.”

Among the plans is the encouragement of new “higher technical qualifications” for school leavers. But experts say the DfE has provided no modelling into what demand there might be for these courses, leaving the sector in the dark about what the suite of qualifications could achieve.


Richard Adams and Sally Weale

The GuardianTramp

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