Richard Atkins: Priced out of college by transport costs

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IF a friend told you they’d had to turn down a job because they couldn’t afford to travel to work, you’d be shocked. But that is the dilemma facing a number of students when it comes to choosing where to go to college.

It is assumed that students should just choose the college that’s nearest to their home, but this often leads to them missing out on the course they really want to do to get their career moving.

Government legislation now says that all young people have to stay in education or training until they are 18 but sadly their transport policy has not caught up.

Local councils must ensure that pupils can get to school, but once they leave at 16 and go to college, the rules change. So, in actual fact, we’re saying they have to stay in education, but without supporting them to do so. If we want young people to achieve their potential, they need to be able to access the right course and if they can’t afford to get there, something must change.

Some students pay about £700 a year just on travelling to and from college. This is difficult to afford when you’re on no or low wages – as most students are.

That’s why the Association of Colleges has made student transport one of its manifesto pledges. We’re calling on the post-General Election Government – whatever political colour it might be – to bring in some fairness.

Colleges spend a large amount of money each year on subsidising transport so students can get to the course which is best suited to them. The problem is that this money has to come from somewhere. It is not provided by Government as a special transport fund, so it has to come from the college.

We’re calling on Government to update their transport rules and ask local authorities to undertake a full assessment of the travel needs of 16 to 18-year-olds in their area to make sure they can access college.

But it’s not as simple as to just demand more money from Government. We know there’s a squeeze on their finances and that money is tight. Instead, we’re asking for the money already available to be used more effectively. For example, older people are entitled to a free bus pass, but what if they neither want nor need it? We say there should be a system whereby the older person could ask that their privilege be transferred to a young person. This wouldn’t mean taking away all older people’s bus passes, only those who give them up voluntarily.

We’re constantly being told that we have skills shortages in this country and that we need a more skilled workforce, so is it right that young people cannot boost their skills because they cannot afford to get to college? For example, a recent survey from the National Society of Apprentices showed that apprentices pay an average of £24 per week in travel costs.

When they are being paid a national minimum wage of £2.73 an hour it means that if they start work at 9am on Monday it will take them until mid-morning on Tuesday just to cover their travel costs.

This isn’t right. At a time when we’re encouraging young people to be better educated and to get a job, it’s actually being made harder for them to do that. Many technical, professional and vocational opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds are only available at further education colleges, which may be a significant distance from home. Young people should not be financially penalised for choosing a work-related route.

So, we’re saying to Government, it’s time to find a different way to fund student transport. It’s all very well to say there isn’t enough money in the pot, but maybe it’s time to get clever and make better use of the money that’s available by putting it to use in the right place.

Richard Atkins is president of the Association of Colleges.