1.5 million adults missing out on upskilling opportunities because of government underspend, FOI reveals

Experts highlight that reskilling in adulthood ‘couldn’t be more important’ as Freedom of Information request finds £1.2bn funding gap over nine years

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More than 1.5 million adults have missed out on upskilling opportunities because the government has underspent on a multi-million-pound scheme, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed.

The Advanced Learner Loan Scheme was initially launched in 2013 to help people over the age of 19 fund courses from colleges and other learning providers, with the Department for Education (DfE) setting annual budget for the programme.

However, the FOI request, submitted by Emeritus, found that there has been a £1.16bn underspend across the life of the programme.

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On average, DfE underspent by 42 per cent each year, and last year alone saw the scheme underspend by £97m.

People who use the scheme receive on average £770, said Emeritus, meaning that last year’s underspend could have helped an additional 120,000 adults access courses.

Across the life of the scheme, Emeritus estimates 1.5 million more adults could have received loans to help them access courses if the funding had been fully spent.

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A Department for Education spokesperson said it was “untrue to suggest that the government underspent” on the Advanced Learner scheme because the funding was “based on learner needs and demand”. 

“This government is committed to meeting the needs of learners which is why we announced an additional £3.8 billion for skills during the 2021 spending review,” they said.

This data comes as the government’s consultation on a new LifeLong Loan Entitlement to encourage more adults to upskill closes.

Anand Chopra-McGowan, general manager of Emeritus, said that while boosting skills has become the mantra of the government, the new data painted a worrying picture. “Year in, year out, the government is missing its target to help reskill adults across the country even with funding available,” he said.

“Developing skills in adulthood couldn’t be more important. As new technology and industries emerge, the UK workforce must upskill to keep pace, preparing today for tomorrow’s workplace.”

Chopra-McGowan added that, following the recent closure of the consultation on a new Lifelong Learning Entitlement, the government now had a chance to correct previous errors.

“From opening up the eligibility requirements so more adults on more courses can apply for funding, to working more closely with businesses so that this scheme can help them to upskill their employees, the government cannot just carry on as this approach clearly isn’t working,” he said.

Simon Ashworth, director of policy at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) said he was unsurprised with the findings of the FOI request given that loan provisions were consistently underspent.

Ashworth emphasised that adult learners would find grant funding more attractive than taking out a loan to do the same course, adding that having a wide range of options available to help adult learners to succeed was also important.

“There is a lot of work to do in making all adults aware of their learning options regardless of their level of attainment and whether they’re in work and looking to retrain or progress, or unemployed and looking to seek good work,” he said.