“‘Second Chance’ Offered me a Lifeline”: Austerity and the erosion of further education

Date Posted: Tuesday 20th August 2019

Blog post by Rebecca Suart on our ECN 'Women and the Economy' blog series.

Educationfurther education

In this sixth instalment of our ECN ‘Women and the Economy’ blog series, Rebecca Suart writes about women and the impact of cuts to further education.


Further Education (FE) offers women a ‘second chance’ to complete qualifications they missed out on when they were younger or to gain new skills after a break in employment.  Its popularity with women is evident as they form the majority of all learners in the sector. This is unsurprising, as FE has traditionally offered a broad range of courses including: ESOL (language courses), vocational training, GCSEs and Access to HE provision, as well as a range of Higher Education courses.  

Unfortunately, years of austerity policy have eroded these opportunities for women as courses are cut, funding is reduced and learners are now expected to take out loans in order to participate. Cuts have been justified on the basis of narrow economic measures which deems women who do not progress immediately into employment a poor return on investment. Consequently, the number of adult women learners (aged 25+) enrolling on FE courses has plummeted from 1.8 to 1.1 million learners since 2009. It is not possible to claim that funding cuts are directly responsible for the decline in learner numbers which could be attributed to other complex factors (e.g. rising levels of employment, universal child care funding and welfare change), and yet it is important to acknowledge how funding cuts limit the opportunities women have to engage in education. Consequently, the life choices of the most economically marginalised and socially excluded women are diminished.

Rewriting the future: “I want a chance to rewrite my story with a happy ending”

Against the backdrop of austerity cuts, my research sought to understand why adult women return to FE, and in particular, what they gain from doing so. I tell the stories of Abi and Sunita* to illustrate the complex reasons women engage in FE courses and what they gained from doing so.

Abi (a single mother), explained why she had returned to college in her late 30s to train to be a veterinary nurse

“ It has been hard; I have always worked but I had to give my job up because I had really bad depression. I came to college because I wanted to get a new job.  Also, my ex had returned to the area and he is very violent…… So, I want to get a job where I can move away from here… and start a new life and we can be safe”.

Abi explained that at points she had to decide between food and heating as she struggled to make ends meet, saying: “it has been hell to get here, but now I can get a job so we can move and start a new life. In that sense it has been worth it”. 

Similarly, Sunita also a single mother migrated to England to get married. She explained that she initially started an ESOL course (language) because:

“I wanted to be able to go out on my own and talk to people in shops and locally. So I could be my own person without having to rely on others to talk for me”.

Unfortunately, her family were resistant to her studying and “They [my family] tried to stop me. It was a hard life but I just keep on doing it”. Shortly after completing her course, Sunita left her husband with her daughter and moved to another city to start a new life. The benefits of her language skills paid off as she was able to: “speak on my own in court to get custody of my daughter”. With language skills Sunita was able to enrol on a hair and beauty course so could realise her ambition of working in a salon one day. She explained:

 “doing this has given me my life back, I have got the confidence to talk to the teachers at my daughter’s school and I can get a job that I will love after”.

The biographies of Abi and Sunita* make visible some of the complex reasons why women re-engage with education and the importance they placed on gaining rewarding employment. FE was described as a ‘lifeline’ for the majority of the women in my study, giving them a chance to overcome negative and complex life events such as domestic abuse, coercive relationships, poverty, addiction and mental health problems. Unfortunately, these barriers rarely exist in isolation; rather, they combine in complex ways which could overwhelm some. Lone parents and migrants who faced intersecting inequalities associated with ethnicity, race, marital, parental and migration status were not only most severely affected by cuts to FE funding, but also cuts to other services and benefits. Consequently, they were most likely to have to balance study with precarious work during unsociable work hours, poverty and child care.

It remains unclear how education will be funded following recommendations made in the Augar Review (2019), however what is evident from my research is that education provided women and their families with a more hopeful future in harsh times.


*Not their real names

This research was funded by the ESRC [grant number 151171] and the University of Nottingham

Based on a paper delivered as part of the WBG Early Career Researchers Network at the International Association for Feminist Economics Conference, Glasgow Caledonian University June 20th 2019

Rebecca Suart is a Researcher at the University of Derby. This blog is based on research funded by the ESRC [grant number 151171].