Investment and accessibility to Further Education emerged as key challenges facing the sector at the recent Festival of Learning Awards.
The award ceremony showcased the range of ways individuals had benefited from Further Education. Winners included Habib Rezaie, who came to the UK from Afghanistan as an unaccompanied asylum-seeker and went on to earn a degree, and Mark Goodwin who established England’s first mixed-ability rugby team.
Despite the many successes, conversations about issues facing the Further Education sector were still rife, particularly around its accessibility and funding.
“We need to have the conversation about tuition fees in FE, the maintenance grants and fees in FE, and actually making education accessible to everybody,” Emily Chapman, Vice President for Further Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), told us.
“You’ve got people that want to upskill and change their lives, want to come back into education and they can’t without taking out a bank loan. We need to make it accessible, let people upskill and not shut people out of education,” she explained.
The recent Conservative Party conference revealed that the £25,000 loan repayment threshold would extend to Further Education students. However discussions were more focused on how adult learners were coping financially during their studies.
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute, who organised the event, told us:
“There have been cuts in funding for adult learning since 2010, and we need a real change in how we work with communities, employers and individuals to show the power of learning, and to get those opportunities out there.”
How do we overcome these challenges in Further Education?
A running thread during the Festival of Learning ceremony touched on how Further Education helped winners overcome mental health challenges. This is a mission the NUS are taking very seriously, and it became clear that funding will inevitably play a role in it.
Chapman revealed her own struggles during her studies due to a lack of support.
“I had to drop out and it broke my mental health. That’s a really hard thing to go through, and you have to pick yourself up from there,” she admitted.
Frustrations in other areas continue to mount after it was recently revealed £200mn of the Further Education budget was unspent in 2016-17. This may not sit well with training providers who now have to tender in order to receive funding. According to FE Week, “certain individual colleges have underspent by nearly three quarters of a million pounds.”
Although there are a number of hurdles for the sector to contend with, the Festival of Learning awards, now in its 25th year, highlighted the achievements that can be attained through Further Education. As Evans explains, events like this only strengthens the impact adult learning can have within society.
“Further education and adult learning really matters. We know it has huge benefits to people’s lives, to people’s jobs and career prospects, to building sustainable communities and also to our future prosperity. We’re really pleased that the Festival of Learning highlights that importance and celebrates the very best.”