By Sophia Warren

Universal Credit (UC) is the main benefit available for working or work-seeking claimants. For people who want to improve their job prospects through training, the rules can be uncertain and complex.

Intensive Work Search Group: Voluntary Full-Time and Part-Time Study

Universal Credit claimants who are available for work often have strict conditions attached to their entitlement. The most extensive requirements are applied to those in the intensive work search group who must spend 35 hours a week looking for work (1).

People on UC must not be “receiving education” which usually means full-time study. The regulations say that “if the claimant is undertaking a course of study or training that is not compatible with any work-related requirement” they will be treated as “receiving education” even if the training is part-time (2). This rule can mean that if training is deemed to conflict with work search requirements the claimant could lose their UC entirely.

Universal Credit and Work-Coach Directed Programmes

UC may support people in part-time education who are taking part in DWP skills programmes as directed by a work coach.

If they have been directly told to attend work-focused training by their work coach this will be considered time spent searching or preparing for work. Regulation 93(d) of the UC Regulations defines one of the purposes of a work-focused interview as “identifying training, educational or rehabilitation opportunities … which may make it more likely that the claimant will remain in or obtain paid work or be able to do so”.

Finding training opportunities for the claimant is a definitive part of the work coach’s role.

Universal Credit and Full-Time DfE Training Programmes

The support under UC for people in full-time training was recently extended from eight weeks to twelve as part of the DWP’s Train and Progress initiative.  Claimants participating in the DfE Skills Bootcamps can receive support for up to 16 weeks (3) although this will end in April 2022 (4a, 4b). For part-time training, no such provision exists and support is more discretionary.

Universal Credit and Voluntary Participation in Part-Time Adult Education

People who voluntarily participate in part-time adult education funded through the DfE Adult Education Budget have no guaranteed UC support.

If they are subject to work-related requirements, the time they spend doing the training may be considered time not spent seeking work, which is a violation of their claimant commitment (5). Low-paid claimants may be expected to look for further opportunities to progress in work which generally means earning more, often by taking on more hours rather than by training to qualify for better opportunities.

The work coach can choose to allow a claimant to undertake a training course. To help the decision to go in their favour, the claimant could show how they’re able to undertake the course and meet their commitments. The Welfare Benefits Unit also suggests arguing that a part-time course is voluntary work preparation which, if the work coach agrees, would count toward their work search requirements (6).

The Association of Colleges recently recommended that UC rules be reformed so that “no one is prevented from being able to access training that will help them so they can progress to gain meaningful employment”.

Similarly, FE Week warned that the current rules hold people back (7). Under the current system a claimant would lose their access to benefits if they took up the Lifetime Skills Guarantee offer of a three-month Level 3 qualification.

While some claimants may find themselves able to undertake part-time training and retain their UC, it is the DWP work coach who determines whether their living costs will be covered while they pursue new skills. The current rules are unclear and leave room for unfair treatment. More clarity is needed, together with better collaboration between government departments, for the next steps of the “skills and training revolution” to fully take off (8).

The cost of living and life-long learning

The cost of living has risen dramatically this year and is at the forefront of most people’s minds. Support from DWP to help people who are doing government-funded training to meet living costs is essential. The upfront cost of training may be covered by DfE but if part-time learners are not able to cover their basic needs then access to training for people on low incomes is not secure.

Sophia Warren is Policy and Data Analyst in Policy in Practice