Today, the starting pistol is fired on the biggest change to higher education funding since 2012.
The innocuous-sounding Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill is a short, technical, instrument with almost no policy in it.
Once again (hello Skills and Post-16 Education Act!) we are going to see a Second Reading debate in the House of Commons (that’s the one that is supposed to cover the main principles of the bill) on a skeleton bill. While we still wait for the results of the consultation – launched a year ago today – that sets out the main principles of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement the Bill is supposed to bring about. It is as depressing as it is typical.
Other than offering us the chance to do a shot every time a minister says “in due course”, the debate – and thus this important piece of parliamentary scrutiny – will be a spectacular waste of everyone’s time. Opposition MPs will vote in favour (how can you vote against “lifelong learning”?) and on the wheel spins.
I’m Henry VIII, I am
The way that the Bill amends the 2017 Higher Education Research Act is to allow the Secretary of State to determine (via secondary legislation) the cost of a single “credit” – which is used as the base unit for the calculation of fee loans available and fee limits set for qualifications at a higher education level.
Three hundred and sixty credits is the standard tariff for a three year undergraduate degree – the Secretary of State gets to set out the maximum amount of credits any given qualification can charge for via another statutory instrument.
And both of these are modifiable in the same way that fee caps are now. Via another set of statutory instruments.
In the explanatory notes the heavy implication is that this will be a simple translation of existing arrangement – a three year undergraduate honours degree has a total fee loan cap of £27,750 and 360 credits – giving a standard fee per credit of a hair over £77. But this is not on the face of the bill.
For credit like yours I can get any day
Neither, for that matter, is the definition of a credit. Again, in the explanatory notes we are assured that the 10 hours of notional learning we are familiar with is the intention. Interestingly, this isn’t defined anywhere (it’s from the old Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS), and also turns up in the QAA-administered credit framework, but if you wanted to find out what 10 hours of notional learning is you will struggle.
Current practice (this really is one of those sector-owned standards) suggests that the 10 hours include “time spent in class, directed learning, independent study and assessment”. This definition, and the hours involved, differ in the US and in Europe – despite the fact that the idea of credit was designed to support students transferring between providers and systems.
So no safeguards exist to stop the Secretary of State waking up one morning and deciding, say, that the hours used in the calculation of credit should not include independent learning. The definition should be on the face of the bill.
One curiosity here is that the idea of “part-time” as traditionally understood will be lost when this bill is implemented. Students will simply be charged for the credits they take each year.
Most sector data sets, including those used in regulation by OfS, offer a split by mode. Part-time students are separated out – those outside of the full time track often have a radically different experience, both as regards their academic work and the wider student experience.
This split will simply not be possible in future – a student could be studying at multiple providers, varying their level of participation year by year (or term by term). There have been no indications as to how data collection will shift to reflect these changes – and no indication as to how OfS regulatory monitoring will alter.
Consider a student that takes a full year of undergraduate study (120 credits) one year and then a half year (60 credits the next year). Should this be returned as non-continuation? Would it be returned as non-completion if a three year degree is completed in four years or more? What if the student takes the missing 60 credits at another provider? – what qualification would they be awarded?
Supply and demand
Of course, those students who apply to traditional honours degrees are not the point of these changes. The modular disaggregation is developed to cater for, as the title of the bill suggests, lifelong learning. Older learners, in other words, who want to upskill or reskill later in life.
Although we know such learners exist, and we know they already access short course provision at many higher education providers, there’s no evidence that undergraduate-style student loans are of use here.
Wonkhe has reported on the low uptake of fee loans for the short course pilot. Polling from Phoenix Insights and Public First has demonstrated that the offer of a fee loan would make no difference to the willingness of someone to retrain. If there is any evidence of demand out there, I don’t know about it.
You’d think before you radically replumbed the higher education funding system to support a new loan offer, you would check whether people wanted it. This does not appear to have happened.
What we have on the face of the bill right now is a fistful of new powers for ministers over how higher education is funded – and nothing that will help encourage lifelong learning. The sector deserves better than this. At the very least, the nation deserves a proper debate on these plans before we start passing legislation.