5 ways that colleges can support their communities during the cost of living crisis
Attending the AoC 2022 Annual Conference, it was clear from the outset that the cost of living crisis was going to be one of the most hotly discussed topics – how could it not? Learners, parents, employers and colleges themselves currently share both similar and unique concerns around how cost is going to impact on lifelong education and the future of work.
Learners have raised concerns regarding paying for meals and travel, which may result in a drop off in participation levels. Parents are feeling the pressure when managing household costs, and may even lose their benefits where their 16-18 year old children choose to embark on an apprenticeship or go into learning rather than work. Employers and SMEs in particular are facing stark choices indeed – wages and utilities may be prioritised over training, and work placements may come to be seen as an unnecessary expense.
Which is why at this year’s AoC conference, we wanted to host a truly collaborative session to bring together the voices of different college leaders and explore the options for support that are out there. Titled “How are colleges supporting their communities through the cost of living crisis?” our session was delivered by three key speakers:
- Michael Lemin, Head of Policy at NCFE
- Leo Webster, Strategy Manager at NCFE
- Andrew Cox, Group Director of Strategic Growth and Partnerships at London South East Colleges.
Here, we break down five ways that our session determined that colleges could provide support through the cost of living crisis, supported by examples and considerations from those who attended our session.
1. Seeking support with transport
There are various transport support schemes that your learners may be eligible for, such as discounted travel passes – for example, Greater Manchester provides free travel for 16–18 year olds. However, sometimes colleges may have to take responsibility for discounted travel themselves if this isn’t already a scheme put in place by local councils, actively seeking the solutions so that learners can continue to attend their place of study.
These travel schemes may also only be accessible depending on your proximity to cities or towns – so, those learners who live in remote areas may not have the same benefits. However, it’s always worth researching to see what options are available.
One attendee shared with us how a group of young people at their college were lobbying on their own behalf for free or reduced transport – a great example of learners taking things into their own hands.
2. Providing options for flexible study
Where your learners are struggling to find the means to physically attend lessons, can you provide flexibility through your delivery? For example, some colleges are using digital technology to conduct certain meetings remotely (which many of us will be used to from our experiences during the pandemic), or even provide learners with options for blended and independent study, enabling them to fit studies around part-time work and other responsibilities.
One college is also currently trialling a four-day working week, with the college physically closed on a Friday for students to engage with self-directed learning at home; the intention being that this cuts costs for the college but is also one less day a week that learners need to pay for transport.
The idea of a four-day week stimulated discussion in the room with several colleagues saying that they would have concerns about this idea due to the wide-ranging role that colleges currently play in the wellbeing of their students. Colleges are not just buildings that students use to access education – they also act as safe and warm refuges for vulnerable individuals – so removing access to this one day a week, could have a negative impact on some learners.
3. Direct financial support
Another way to support learners is through providing them with awareness of the resources that are available to them financially – as well as supporting them with applications required to receive this funding.
Hardship funding is usually contextual to the college and centres around locally accessible funds. Every locality is different with little standardisation – in Newcastle for example, there is Prince’s Trust and the Greggs Foundation. Though they vary from region to region, there are tools to find information about local grants, like the one on the turn2us website. There are also national schemes such as the 19+ Discretionary Learner Support Fund, which provides financial support through the ESFA for learners in hardship.
A representative from Black Bullion discussed the importance of young people having sound financial awareness and knowing what support is available and how to access it. For example, anyone born in the UK between 2002 and 2011 will have a Child Trust Fund, either set up by a parent or HMRC. These accounts are now maturing as their beneficiaries are turning 18 – yet, millions of pounds of these funds go unclaimed because many young people aren’t aware that they exist.
Michael Lemin presents during our AOC 2022 Annual Conference breakout session
4. Signposting and resource sharing
Effective signposting and resource sharing is another important way that colleges can support learners. Having knowledge and understanding of the support networks within your local area means that you can point learners – no matter their circumstances – in the right direction to receive help.
Organisations such as Mind, Citizens Advice, and National Energy Action are able to provide support and resources in areas including mental health, financial advice and benefit eligibility. Again, you may need to support your learners when it comes to completing charity and grant applications.
One college leader who contributed to the session was supporting students through an entrepreneurship programme which provides coaching, mentoring, support and business education to learners, with AEB-funded qualifications. Whilst this is a longer-term solution, it gives learners a positive focus and also provides an end goal that will help them be astute and support themselves.
5. Encourage college initiatives
It’s clear to see that colleges are hugely valuable anchor institutions within their communities. The power of community and college initiatives, and the concepts of volunteering, sharing and working together, are so important at this time, providing a platform for generating positive and sustainable impact on local communities.
Andrew Cox from London South East Colleges joined our session to discuss the Good for ME Good for FE (GfMGfFE) initiative, where over 140 colleges and more than 50 local partnerships with charitable and corporate organisations have come together to raise more than £2 million in social value (through volunteering hours, food items donated, and more) in less than two years.
NCFE chose to substantially invest in this initiative because of the way that it hugely supports families and communities, as well as giving the volunteers increased life chances, happiness and satisfaction through an enhanced sense of purpose.
Read more on their website, including some amazing examples of colleges that have taken part in this initiative.
In addition to GfMGfFE, several other college initiatives were discussed, including Hopwood Hall who shared how they’ve linked in with their local hygiene bank and Chichester College Group who reached out to organisations including Vodafone, who were able to donate SIM cards for mobile phones.
It’s clear to see that during the cost of living crisis, colleges are making significant contributions to the lives of their learners and to their communities, which extend far beyond their core purpose.
However, as incredible as these initiatives are, the crisis is undoubtedly placing huge additional pressure on colleges who are left filling in the gaps left by a lack of government support, recognising that they cannot educate cold and hungry learners.
Extra financial provision to help colleges to help their students would be most welcome and ensure that the empathy and compassion of colleges and their leaders is not solely depended on.
And whilst there are no easy answers to these concerns, it’s important to focus on what is within our control – collaborating, sharing best practice, researching / signposting what untapped resources are out there, and ultimately lobbying for the support that the sector needs to support individuals and communities to thrive.
If you work at a college and you’re doing something amazing to support your learners through the cost of living crisis or know of any valuable resources and support, please let us know by emailing [email protected] so we can ensure all best practice is shared. To get involved with Good for ME Good for FE, please contact [email protected].
Andrew Cox, Group Director of Strategic Growth and Partnerships at London South East Colleges, presents during the session