They can assist lower-income students but are adult learning grants enough?

When Erica Hurer-Mackay enrolled on a higher education access course at Bedford College last September, she was advised to apply for an adult learning grant (ALG), that would entitle her to £30 a week. As a single parent with three children under 16 (pictured, right), she was eligible, and found it covered her travel costs and meant she needn't work. "Thirty pounds can make a difference if you're on a budget," she says.

To qualify for an ALG, students must be over 19 and on a limited income. Since Bedford College started piloting ALGs five years ago, the number of claimants has risen steadily, mainly because the grants are better publicised.

A quarter of the college's 600 full-time adult students are getting ALGs this year, and 1,000 16 to 19-year-olds receive an educational maintenance allowance (EMA), also worth up to £30 a week. Hurer-Mackay believes it is wrong that she receives the same sum as a teenager living at home. "I have to pay rent and support my children," she says.

The grants have been available in colleges since September 2007. Nationally, more than 30,000 students have applied this year, twice as many as the Learning and Skills Council expected. The LSC predicts that 75 per cent of applicants will receive ALGs and that it will easily exceed its target of 17,500 recipients in 2007-8.

But Claire Mycock, director of adult-learner support at the LSC, says it is wrong to compare this grant with EMAs. "It's for help with additional costs of studying, not the costs of living," she says.

Providing Hurer-Mackay completes the access course and gains a place at university, she should qualify for a £4,000 annual bursary. As an undergraduate, she would also be able to take out a student loan.

The stark contrast in financial support for adults in higher education and those in further education, was highlighted last month in a report by the National Skills Forum. Mick Fletcher, the author, says higher education students enjoy a more generous system of maintenance support, and are eligible for "soft loans", which only have to be paid back when graduates reach an earnings threshold.

Although FE students can take out career-development loans, they are charged at commercial rates and must be repaid as soon as a course finishes. "Higher education is disproportionately driven by more affluent parts of society," he says. "There would be a lot more full-time students in FE if we had the same generous levels of support as in HE."

Fletcher's report led the Associate Parliamentary Skills Group to call for a single system of financial support for adult learners covering the two sectors. Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, welcomes ALGs and the extension of childcare support in FE but agrees the sectors should be brought into line. "If people are to have longer working lives and we want them to reskill, why should we put all the support into young people doing full-time higher education?"

In Wales, FE colleges offer ALGs to adults, but they are worth £1,500 a year, compared to the £2,700 paid to adults in higher education. English and Welsh colleges also operate discretionary funds that give hard-up students money for equipment, books and childcare.

Lesley Ferguson, director of Bedford's student services, says it could have spent its £300,000 learner-support fund on childcare this year, but childcare support is limited to £100,000.

In his reply to the National Skills Forum report, the higher education minister, Bill Rammell, said: "Learner support in FE provides help with the additional costs of studying, not with costs of living, which are expected to be covered through benefits, income support and wages."

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