When I think of the typical student who would benefit most from an increased investment in lifelong learning, I think of my father.
He found himself in a scenario in his mid thirties where he needed to retrain quickly or risk facing unemployment in a declining industry. And so, he undertook a short course in software design, spending the weekdays in his job at the time, and weeknights and weekends pursuing study.
A few years later, he wanted to pivot careers once more. This time, into a completely different field of medical pathology with a diploma level course. Again, he juggled full-time work and part time study, funding the course almost entirely from his own savings. At the age of 50 with at least another 30 years of working life, there is nothing to say that he might not change careers once more. In fact, it is both in the interests of his personal wellbeing and indeed for the national good, that he is encouraged to continue learning and contributing.
So in thinking through the Augar report’s proposal for a lifelong learning loan, I find myself wondering what non-traditional students like him would make of this proposal.
What’s the offer
The panel recommends that the government introduce a lifelong learning loan allowance for qualifications at levels four, five and six for adults without a publicly funded degree. This entitlement is proposed to be set as a financial amount equivalent to four years’ full-time undergraduate funding, which would be £30,000 given the panel’s recommendation of a fee cap of £7,500 per year. The money could be used for vocational or academic courses, across institutions, at any stage of an adult’s career for full and part-time study.
The key difference is that funding would be made available for bite-sized chunks of learning, down to individual modules, which, over time, could be stitched together to build up sufficient credit for a qualification at level four, five, or six. The report claims that this scheme would allow borrowers to be “price-sensitive” than if they were shopping for a qualification in its entirety, and would encourage credit transferability between different institutions as learners move around to top up their learning. This model could be radically transformative if it could be made to work, but there are potential snags.
The panel assumes that one can progress in a relatively linear fashion through a series of modules to arrive at a whole qualification; this may be accurate in some subjects and institutions but not in all. Increasingly the module is going the way of the i-pod – radical in the noughties but looking pretty clunky in the modern day. Curricula are more frequently designed and assessed at programme level, ensuring students gain the range of skills required for the qualification, and that knowledge gained in one part of the course is applicable to another. Managing this over several years and prospectively across several institutions and/or several subjects of study is not impossible, but there are practical and psychological barriers to overcome.
The other issue is about the continued relevance of knowledge over time. Does it matter if your foundational knowledge of a subject is five years (or more) out of date by the time you top it up to achieve your full qualification? Thinking all this through could create space for some really interesting innovations and rethinking of the way we understand the structure of knowledge in different disciplines, but it could also raise questions over the maintenance of standards.
The Australian comparison
In framing up this proposal, the panel took inspiration from the Australian experience with the FEE-HELP program. This entitlement is available to all domestic students enrolled in universities and other higher education providers, regardless of the level of qualification or previous qualifications. Students can access a loan of up to a lifetime maximum of the equivalent of approximately £49,000 which is paid back on an income-contingent basis.
However, FEE-HELP only looks appealing when it is applied to providers of higher education. The Augar report was silent on whether the panel had looked at the VET FEE-HELP scheme – which was the equivalent of FEE-HELP for the vocational education sector and widely considered to be among the biggest public policy scandals in Australian history.
An initial review of VET FEE-HELP in 2012 found a relatively low take up of the scheme, with only 39,000 students accessing a loan. There were practical issues with the scheme, with some more hands-on courses unlikely to ever be given credit towards a degree.
In response, the government made changes to relax the legislation in 2012, which enabled substantial growth in the number of providers who could provide courses that qualified for VET FEE-HELP loans. This also saw the introduction of private providers, who simply put, manipulated the system by charging students’ through the roof in the absence of government regulation on course fees, and at the same time, claiming the payments for VET FEE-HELP. In 2014, 77 per cent of payments were to for-profit providers – an issue that also surfaced in the UK’s experience of individual learner accounts (ILAs).
By about 2016, the federal government realised that much of the staggering £700m debt attached to VET FEE-HELP loans was never going to be recovered. Students who were undertaking these VET FEE-HELP eligible courses were often from disadvantaged backgrounds who – through the action of structural inequalities – would never reach the income threshold for repayment. Equally, many of the private providers involved had gone bust and the government was unlikely to recoup costs from them either. Students were left unable to complete courses they had started, and disillusioned about education.
Ultimately, the scheme was abandoned by the government. Though it had started as a well-intentioned attempt to promote equitable access and lifelong learning, it was undoubtedly a poorly designed approach that wreaked systematic havoc.
Lifelong learning can work – but with strict controls
This anxiety-inducing walk through memory lane isn’t to suggest that Augar’s lifelong learning allowance doesn’t have merit, or that it can’t be important to the effort to redressing the decline in part-time learning and increasing the take up of post-compulsory education across the board.
In the context of the Augar review and more generally, lifelong learning appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance. The Labour Party is already picking up the issues in its lifelong learning commission. The Liberal Democrats have conducted a similar lifelong commission exercise, in which they propose a Personal Education and Skills Account that shares many common features with the Augar panel’s recommendation. This kind of intervention is clearly a politically attractive idea.
But look before you jump. There is much to be interrogated about the oversight, regulation, and implementation, and assumptions about predicted student behaviour need to be properly tested before we take the idea forward.