Leading article: Someone must pay for courses

The Government's White Paper on the future of further education is right to single out staying-on rates at age 16 as the most pressing issue to be tackled. We cannot tolerate a situation in which countries such as India and China are expanding their education systems, but we lag behind at 24th out of 29 industrialised nations for the percentage of young people staying on in full-time education and training. This week's announcement that A-level courses are to be provided free to youngsters up to the age of 25 is imaginative.

There are many young people who quit schooling at 16 - possibly through boredom or the desire to live independently - who realise by the age of, say, 20 that they may have made a mistake. But they will have missed the cut-off point for free funding for courses, which is currently the age of 19. The cost of providing education or training for free up to the age of 25 for all young people who want it is estimated to be £25m. It is thought that 45,000 youngsters will benefit from it. However, that assessment is based on the number of people in that age group who currently have to pay for courses.

If the programme to give everyone under 25 free education is successful, it should attract greater numbers back into full-time education. And there's the rub. Who will pay? The Government's answer is that essential courses in basic skills and tuition to the age of 25 should be provided free, but everyone else in further education will have to pay more to fund the subsidy.

According to Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, levels of taxation are about at the maximum people will tolerate. That means that any improvement in provision in one area has to paid for by users in another. He is right when he says that learning for leisure and for a qualification that is not concerned with basic skills should be paid for by the over 25-year-olds to bring in more money.

However, the Government needs to take care here. If there is a fall-off in demand for these courses because of the increased cost, as some of the critics claim, ministers may have to look at the policy again.

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