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Last Updated: Monday, 19 March 2007, 00:05 GMT
Adult students 'should get loans'
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There is a drive to improve adults' skills
Adults doing the equivalent of A-level courses in England's further education colleges should get university-style student loans, a think tank argues.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) says this would benefit more than 400,000 students at a time.

As with graduates, they should not have to pay back the loans until they had completed their Level 3 course and are earning more than 15,000, it said.

It also recommends a more flexible approach to more basic, Level 2 skills.

It says people should be able to study in "bite size" chunks rather than taking full external qualifications.

IPPR associate director Richard Brooks said: "At the moment the further education system is too rigid and puts employers rather than learners in the driving seat.

"People without the equivalent of five good GCSEs should be entitled to more flexible financial support with their course fees."

Skills drive

Mr Brooks added: "While higher education students get interest-free loans to help with their living costs, FE students pay commercial rates of interest and have to rely on small pots of discretionary funding.

"This is neither fair nor sensible, so FE students should get equal treatment and access to interest-free loans that they can pay back after study."

There is a drive to improve adult skills - the shortage of which was highlighted in a government-commissioned report by Lord Leitch.

He said the country needed 90% of adults with at least Level 2 skills - the equivalent of five GCSEs - with funding shared between government and employers.

Figures released this week showed that, despite improvements, the current level in England is only 74%.

More debt

Exam board Edexcel funded the Ippr study.

Its director of qualifications and accreditation, Isabel Sutcliffe, said: "If we are to achieve the ambitious Leitch targets then we need some innovative thinking about how best to meet learner and employer skill needs."

The National Union of Students vice president for further education, Ellie Russell, said it agreed further and higher education should be more on a par.

Offering student loans to FE students was a logical place to begin - though it did have concerns about encouraging more students into debt.

"Currently FE students are forced into commercial loans which have crippling rates of interest," she said.

"Student loans would mean a greater level of independence for FE students from the whim of government, employers, family and others."

But the NUS hoped industry would still be encouraged to play its part.

"We would hate to think that FE loans could be used as another means to let industry off the hook."

Part-timers 'disadvantaged'

The CMU group of universities - which represents 30 of the newer institutions - said the proposal to extend loans into FE painted too rosy a picture of the higher education system.

"Part-time students in England, who comprise almost 45% of all higher education students, are excluded from income-contingent loans for tuition fees, unlike full-time students - even though they may be on the same course," said chief executive Pam Tatlow.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said those in higher education were not expected to be undertaking substantial paid work and needed support with the costs of living while learning.

He added: "As part of our wider package of support for further education students we have a successful programme of interest free loans, the Career Development Loans scheme, that have helped over 230,000 learners."

further education learners had also been helped through Learner Support Funds and the Adult Learning Grant.

Both were designed to overcome barriers to learning created by the additional costs arising form books, childcare and travel and were targeted on disadvantaged and low income learners.

But the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, John Brennan, said the IPPR report resonated with many of its long-term goals and rightly identified the disadvantages that FE students suffered.

"There really does need to be a better student support package in further education on similar terms to that offered in higher education," he said.

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