NUS Poverty Commission – How to break the cycle?

Blog by Ruth Spellman

This week, the NUS released the result of its Poverty Commission, which aims to address the barriers working class students face in accessing and, crucially, succeeding in post-16 education.

The report ‘Class dismissed: Getting in and getting on in further and higher education’ found that working class students face higher financial barriers when trying to access post-16 education in England. In particular, students from poorer backgrounds struggle to pay for food, heating, transport and accommodation. The report called on the government to introduce a minimum living income to provide security for students who experience financial precarity.

The WEA provided evidence for the report and highlighted the barriers we know our students face and also the incredible impact when these barriers and negative perceptions are overcome.

Barriers to education

We recognise that for many people, returning to education as an adult can be daunting and difficult and we should never underestimate the extent to which social and financial barriers can hold back people with the potential to be academically successful. 

Adult education can be a route by which adults who have not felt that they’ve kept up with their peers can re-engage and we work to remove barriers wherever possible to encourage people to join in our courses.

Funding issues and reform of student finance are clearly at the root of declining numbers of adult learners across all forms of education. It is clear that the current system is not working. As well as course fees, students of all ages face multiple barriers relating to general living costs.   These costs might include: transport, purchasing books or equipment, loss of earnings through taking time off to attend, childcare costs, food and drink.

Many adult community learning providers also work to reduce or eliminate these costs – delivering classes close to where the majority of students live or work, offering crèche facilities (particularly residential providers), having most materials and equipment available without requiring the student to bring them. There are limits, however, to how far providers can stretch their support in this way and even marginal expenses can be sufficient to make it unviable for those on low incomes to take up or complete a course.

Beyond this, we know that people within disadvantaged groups may face additional social, cultural and psychological barriers to gaining an education. If they lack support, they may feel tentative about learning, especially if they are embarrassed at admitting shortcomings in their skills or knowledge.

To exacerbate these problems, information about courses and education is patchy and under-resourced which means people often don’t know how to access learning, if they know the provision exists at all.

Our impact

We know from our annual Impact Report that BAMER and ESOL students, those on benefits and those with lower-level qualifications, benefit the most from attending our courses.

  • Students claiming means-tested benefits developed life skills such as communication, creative skills and problem solving at about 19 to 39 percentage points higher rate than their counterparts not on benefits.

  • 16 percent of our students on means tested benefits got a new job as result of attending a WEA course and 44 percent of the students said it would have been difficult to get these benefits to employability without the WEA.

  • 73 per cent of students on means-tested benefits felt more confident in progressing in their career in the future.

  • 42 per cent felt they were able to do their jobs better and 21 per cent felt more secure in their job.

Next steps

We should commit to removing the barriers that currently stand in the way for students. No one should have to struggle to make ends meet while accessing education. We must not write off adults but instead give them equal opportunity to learn, develop and flourish.

With this in mind, the WEA believes the following would help to address the barriers working class students face in accessing and, crucially, succeeding in post-16 education.

  1. A national adult education strategy – we have long campaigned for cross-party support to raise the profile of adult education and place it more firmly in relation to not only other education policy but in relation to wider government policy. We must recognise its cross-cutting contribution to health, employment and community cohesion and for the broad ripple effect it has on not only the individual but family members and wider society.

  2. Outreach - We believe outreach has a vital role to play and adult education providers working in the community can be a crucial part of making education accessible and increasing the visibility of the chances available. Closer working between Universities, colleges and providers across all parts of the education sector would encourage more students of all ages to find out about and access the best pathways into learning.

  3. Investment in Information, Advice & Guidance (IAG) for all ages – the recently launched Careers Strategy is light on how adults will be supported, with the continuation of the National Careers Service (NCS) being the main point of emphasis. We need to ensure that many adult learners and those who need advice and guidance most are made aware of the services offered by the NCS.