LISA NANDY - Students must not be defeated by challenge

IT HAS been time to reflect on some huge changes and challenges in education.

I recently had the honour of addressing the Association of Colleges’ North West conference held at the DW Stadium.

And here in Wigan, our over 16s are well served by Wigan and Leigh, Winstanley and St John Rigby Colleges, working together and with sixth forms and local schools.

This collaborative approach is vitally important to students - but this is now under threat. There is little doubt that the transformation of the current education system to one based on choice and competition presents huge challenges for further education.

University Technical Colleges, which are now appearing across the board, including shortly in Wigan, present a challenge along similar lines to the free schools that the Coalition Government are pushing.

But changes to eligibility for funding, the unknown impact of Universal Credit and perhaps most timely, the introduction of loans all present enormous uncertainties for further education today, especially at a time when budgets have to be cut, all testing the resilience of one of the most resourceful sectors.

Loans for further education are set to be introduced in 2013/14 and as yet there has not been a proper impact assessment or equality impact assessment on the proposals.

Although we are told there will be one in May, regulations have not yet been laid before Parliament to let those providing higher education, nor prospective students, know what the new system will look like.

Many in further education are therefore worried that there will be no time to consider the results of an impact assessment before regulations are put in place, and that there will be no money for advising students of their options or capacity, within an already stretched and gaffe prone Student Loans Company, to deal with a system as diverse as further education.

And that is before we even address the issue of whether the proposed system is right for students in the first place.

Access to higher education courses could be severely impacted.

Currently, over 70 per cent of people on those courses are women and over 10 per cent have learning needs or a registered disability.

The equality impacts are potentially massive for this group who are often taking a second chance in education to get the qualifications they need for university.

Those adults, unlike their 18 year old peers, will set foot on university campus with thousands of pounds of debt for their education even before they attend their first lecture.

Despite all the challenges faced by higher education there were many determined voices from around the region.

And even though we face such difficult times I would urge both young and mature students not to be deterred and to fulfil their ambitions.