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A systematic review of the impact of financial circumstances on access to post-16 learning in the Learning and Skills Council sector. Summary


This report is the result of two linked pieces of work undertaken between May 2001 and September 2002. The first is a descriptive map of studies that was conducted up to March 2002 and identified the range and type of research studies addressing the impact of financial circumstances on engagement with learning in the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) sector. The second is a review based on a subset of those studies identified in the descriptive map that focus on the impact of financial circumstances on student access to learning in the LSC sector. This in-depth review is the first of three planned by the Post-compulsory Education Review Group. The second and third in-depth reviews will be conducted respectively on the impact of financial circumstances on (a) student retention in the LSC sector, and (b) student achievement in the LSC sector.


There is considerable interest from policy-makers and other stakeholders in the impact of financial circumstances on the engagement with learning of young people and adults in the post-16 education sector. The establishment of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in April 2001, with a brief to rationalise systems and structures in all post-16 learning outside higher education, stimulated questions about the rationale for, and efficacy of, various forms of student support.

The Post-Compulsory Education Review Group, as one of the Review Groups set up in partnership with the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI Centre), has investigated the impact of financial circumstances on engagement with learning in the LSC sector by systematically reviewing an international range of research studies dating from 1993 to 2002. It started its work with the definition of key terms in the study: ‘financial circumstances’, ‘engagement’, ‘learning’, ‘LSC sector’ and ‘impact’.

  • Financial circumstances was chosen in order to encompass all forms of finance available to learners: for example, earnings, family support, benefits, grants and loans. A more limited study might focus on the impact of support from public funds but this was rejected for the following two reasons: firstly, it is difficult to separate out the impact of one source of finance from all the others; and, secondly, the response to levels of finance may or may not be independent of its source and it is necessary to know that.
  • Engagement emphasises consideration of qualitative judgements as well as counting. This could be important in relation to some forms of public support. The education maintenance allowance (EMA) scheme, where learners could lose £40 for an unauthorised absence, might improve attendance without engagement (and equally, as with seatbelt legislation, improved engagement could follow from forced compliance). Any evaluation of impact must examine the consequences of interventions for learning outcomes. However, outcomes should not be seen simply in terms of examination success, still less restricted to national training targets. Engagement is intended to capture both these and more positive attitudes to involvement and progression.
  • Learners were chosen rather than students in order to include trainees, New Deal clients and sixth-form pupils. It reflects the varying status of those engaged in formal learning in the sector created by the establishment of the LSC. It is not intended to indicate an interest in the unplanned and unrecorded learning that arises from the everyday experience of adults, but rather to focus on learning in which there is an explicit public interest.
  • LSC sector: LSC is the Learning and Skills Council. The term ‘LSC sector’ describes reasonably well the learners and learning contexts the Review Group wished to cover – that is, the experience of the sort of learner and post-16 learning that from April 2001 became the responsibility of the LSC in England.
  • Impact was intended to focus the review on studies that sought to understand the links between financial circumstances and engagement.


The present report has two aims: firstly, to identify the range of studies that addresses the impact of financial circumstances on engagement with learning in the LSC sector, and secondly, to undertake an in-depth review of the papers that were identified as focusing on the impact of financial circumstances on access to learning in the LSC sector.

Review questions

With reference to the above aims, the main question for the overall study is as follows:

What is the impact of financial circumstances on engagement with learning in the LSC sector?

The main review question for the in-depth review presented in this report is:

What is the impact of financial circumstances on access to learning in the LSC sector?


Initially, a protocol or plan was written to set out the parameters and stages for the systematic review of research literature. The protocol established the main aims of the research, the key research question and the methods used to answer it. A key part of this document was the development of inclusion and exclusion criteria for the review.

Thereafter, searches of international literature took place using both electronic and handsearches to explore a wide range of journals, reports, books, abstracts and other formats covering a time span of 1993–2001. From searches of electronic databases, relevant websites, journals and reports, 9,665 citations were identified. These citations were screened according to the explicit inclusion and exclusion criteria in the protocol, to identify those that were relevant. Most screening was completed on the basis of titles and abstracts provided by databases or websites, but in some cases, where a full copy of the report was available for download or a journal was handsearched, the full-length text was used.

Originally, 55 studies were found that met the inclusion criteria in the protocol; these were subjected to an in-depth keyword coding exercise from which a systematic map describing studies that investigated the impact of financial circumstances on engagement with post-16 learning’ was published. In the process of carrying out the in-depth review that stems from this piece of work, a second quality assessment exercise was carried out. This resulted in a reduction of the number of studies (N=4) meeting the criteria for inclusion in the descriptive map. An additional study reporting a sequel to a study included in the map was also included in the descriptive map when it was revised for this review. Therefore the descriptive map now contains 52 studies, instead of 55.

Of the 52 studies included in the revised map reported in this review, 31 address the topic of the impact of financial circumstances on access to post-16 learning in the LSC sector. Data were extracted from these 31 studies and have provided the basis for an in-depth review. Of these, three were outcome evaluations (evaluations of the results of an experiment or innovation, or of relationships between variables) and the remaining 28 were descriptive studies (descriptions of phenomena or explorations of relationships). There is wide variation in quality between the studies and in the methods used to arrive at study findings. Due to this heterogeneity between studies, and the relatively low number judged to be sound, a narrative synthesis was deemed appropriate.

The review methodology used was devised by the EPPI Centre. The full Post-Compulsory Education Review Group has been consulted at every stage of the process. As it consists of academic and professional researchers, users involved in the policy community and users involved with practice in colleges, it provides a broad constituency for ensuring that the direction of the review is sound. Furthermore, to date there has been independent peer reviewing of the protocol, descriptive map and the review itself.


The systematic map included 52 studies published between 1993 and 2002 that examine the impact of financial circumstances on engagement with learning in the LSC sector. Most of these originated from the United Kingdom (UK), with just one being published elsewhere. Of the total, 60% of all studies addressed learner access to learning, while learner retention received 58% and learner achievement just 25% coverage. The younger learner population aged 16 to 19 were addressed in 94% of all studies, with adults aged 19+ receiving coverage in 67% of all studies. However, only 6% of studies focused on adults only, compared with 33% that focused on young people only, which significantly under-represents the proportion of adults in the total learner population – nearly 5:1 in terms of learner numbers and approximately 1:1 in terms of FTE (fulltime equivalent) learner numbers.

The 31 studies in the in-depth review on access to learning found mixed results due to a lack of consistency in the methodological quality of the relevant studies.

In four studies, the number of participants contributing data is not clearly reported, and a further four studies report no, or insufficient, raw qualitative data. The synthesis found that a further four studies use vague definitions of financial circumstances, including ‘cost of learning’, ‘student support’, and ‘financial considerations’ that do not tally with the categories used by the Review Group. One study addresses part-time work, but fails to address directly the issue of access to post-16 learning. Eight studies report on relationships between socioeconomic status and some aspect of participation in learning – for example, parents’ socioeconomic grade and learner attainment at year 11.

The synthesis is organised around the four aspects of learner finance identified by the Review Group. These are fees or fee remission; the indirect costs of learning, such as transport, childcare or books; issues related to maintenance, grants or loans; and income from earnings by the individual or family. Within each of these subheadings, the review addresses young people, followed by adults.

No studies deal with the impact of the direct costs of learning on young people, presumably because full-time learning in schools and colleges has traditionally been free in the UK. Until 2001, however, many further education (FE) colleges charged fees for part-time learners under the age of 19. There may be scope for small-scale research which investigates whether the abolition of all fees for young people under the age of 19 by the LSC has affected participation rates.

This review found that there are 12 studies concerned with the impact of the direct costs of learning on adult participation. They report the outcomes of surveys, some of which are based on representative samples of the population and some on more restricted groups. What emerges from national surveys is that the direct costs of learning are a barrier for about 20% of the adult population and a critical barrier to fewer than 10%. The proportions affected are higher among sub-groups with lower incomes. There is no evidence as to whether particular levels of fees constitute critical thresholds, or whether the perceptions of individuals as to the potential costs of learning are accurate. These findings are supported by some smaller-scale studies, which on their own do not provide sufficiently secure evidence on the research question, since they do not report details of their samples, analyse differential response rates or indicate how the characteristics of the sample relate to the adult population.

One study provides evidence on the effect of indirect costs on the participation of young people, although a limiting factor is that it focuses only on those who are participating in education, and so cannot provide evidence on those who have been deterred by financial or other barriers. The researchers are careful to match the characteristics of their sample with that of the wider population of interest so the results can be extrapolated to all post-16 learners with some confidence. In the great majority of cases, the costs of study do not appear to have influenced the choice of college (87%), or the choice of course (94%), although, for the minority who indicate that costs were influential, transport seems to have been the most frequent factor. Five studies report findings indicating that indirect costs are a source of hardship for a minority of adult learners, with childcare arrangements being particularly prominent.

The most secure evidence on the links between finance and participation in learning identified in this review comes from the evaluation of the pilot schemes of EMAs introduced from September 1999. The quantitative evaluation involved large random sample surveys of young people and their parents in 10 EMA pilot areas and 11 control areas. Reports have been published on the basis of the first and second year’s experience. In both stages of the evaluation, weightings were applied to the data to correct for potential sources of bias arising from exclusions from sample and differential response rates; population weights were also produced to allow extrapolation to England as a whole.

The general finding, from both the evaluation of the first year of the scheme and a subsequent evaluation after two years, is that the EMA scheme has increased the participation of young people in full-time education. Evidence from the second study suggests that it has raised post-16 participation among young people in year 12 by around 5.9%, which is equal to a 3.7% increase for all young people in that year. This is a slightly greater effect than reported by the initial evaluation, which may be due to increased awareness of the allowances or awareness at an earlier stage.

There is no secure direct evidence on links between individual or family income and young people’s participation in post-16 education and training. Five studies report a correlation between parental socioeconomic group (SEG), and both the propensity to engage in formal post-16 learning and the nature of that learning. Although it might be possible to draw a link between SEG and family income, none of these studies do so. Even if such a correlation were demonstrated, it would not establish that income was a critical factor; low income and low participation rates might both be produced by some other correlate of SEG, such as lower parental ambition or ability. There is little more explicit evidence of correlation between the income of adults and participation in formal learning. Four studies report on the relationship between high income or professional occupation and higher participation rates in adult education. However, it is not possible to know from the data provided in these studies whether SEG impacts on participation through income rather than other factors.

The strengths of the review are its transparent processes and its systematic approach. These have resulted in an accountable, authoritative attempt to answer the main research question. The review has maintained a balanced and open view of study types and has attempted to evaluate rigorously each on its own methodological terms. The limitations of the review are the variation of methodological quality within study type, and the fact that many of the studies addressed the review question in an indirect fashion. An analysis of the weight of this evidence reveals that there is better evidence for some facets of the question than others. There is clearly more robust evidence on the participation of young people aged 16 to 19 and the financial issue of maintenance than there is for fees, indirect costs and earnings. Overall, the quality of evidence available on adults is weaker in comparison to that available for young people. This suggests the need for targeted, clearly defined programmes of research for both young people and adults.

Conclusions and implications

The clearest message from the review for policy-makers is that very little is known about how financial factors affect learners. This is firstly because research to date has been unable to separate out the effect of finance from other factors, such as the socioeconomic group to which a potential learner belongs, or their prior educational achievement. Secondly, policy changes have not been accompanied by appropriate research, or have been introduced in ways that make robust research difficult to conduct.

Another important message for policy-makers is that, for a large number of people, current financial arrangements are not a major issue. For those currently engaged in learning, the direct or indirect and opportunity costs associated with learning are, by definition, not a barrier, although many see them as a cause of hardship. This does not imply that finance is not a major issue; merely that, at the current levels of cost and current levels of aspiration, it is not the critical factor for most people. In addition, there is evidence that suggests that some non-learners do not view participation in post-16 learning as a desirable goal. On balance, the evidence supports the extension of targeted interventions aimed at reducing the direct and indirect costs of learning for selected groups of learners.

Many of the best studies to date have surveyed a population of learners or non-learners and sought to describe their views and characteristics. While they have given important insights, there are limits to how far policy can build upon them, not least because people do not always behave in practice according to how they respond to a questionnaire. The financial arrangements for post-16 learning lend themselves to developing specific interventions and rigorous outcome evaluations.

The creation of the LSC has helped to establish a context in which a programme of properly evaluated interventions can be initiated. The LSC has the responsibility for deploying over £6 billion, a brief to develop consistent national policy and a structure of 47 local arms that could provide the setting for planned interventions to be evaluated alongside properly constructed control groups.

A number of priority targets for research suggest themselves. The impact of changes in fees and fee remission policy is probably the most important. The Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) is working with the LSC to develop a trial that will investigate whether learners’ attitudes and behaviour change as a result of their being told the full cost of their learning rather than just the fee that they pay. Similar evaluations need to be developed to test the impact of specific increases and reductions in fees, and the mechanisms through which reductions are given. The revised arrangements for individual learning accounts (ILAs) might enable an evaluation on the relative impact of fee remission and fee discount via an ILA.

In respect of the indirect costs of learning, there is scope to undertake trials of new forms of support with specific groups of potential learners. A useful starting point would be the research evidence that points to the most frequently reported barriers or causes of hardship (childcare, transport) and the groups most frequently quoting financial difficulties (young adults, the unemployed). If new support arrangements are developed, research must focus not on whether the recipients welcome the funding, but whether the intervention makes a difference to the numbers that participate and to subsequent rates of achievement.

The category of maintenance or living costs has scope for some limited trials to establish whether more substantial levels of support help achieve government objectives. One candidate would be an extension of EMAs to young adults, perhaps those who missed out on post-16 learning. A separate trial might seek to establish whether loans, provided on a similar basis to student loans in higher education (HE), could play a useful role in promoting the engagement of older FE learners.

This report should be cited as: Fletcher M, Lockhart I, Richmond R, Clarke C, Mason S, Morris A, Ward-Brew M, Westrip R (2005) A systematic review of the impact of financial circumstances on access to post-16 learning in the Learning and Skills Council sector. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London

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