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Credit where credit is due

The new LLE legislation will connect student loan finance to credits. QAA's Eve Alcock explains how the puzzle pieces fit together - and what we don't yet know
This article is more than 1 year old

Eve Alcock is Director of Public Affairs at QAA

The sector has long awaited detail on how the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) would work in practice to support the Government’s vision for lifelong learning.

Last week, we got the first glimpse of primary legislation – the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill – which provides some answers: credit-based fee limits for these shorter modules and courses, and the introduction of a “course year” to allow tuition fee loans to be offered with more precision depending on when a learner begins their course.

The QAA is the custodian for the Higher Education Credit Framework for England, which is central to the success of this proposed legislative approach. Revised in 2021, it is a nationally agreed, sector-owned approach to using credit in England.

The framework states that one credit generally represents 10 hours of learning time – both guided and independent, and outlines how many credits you need for each qualification level. It allows “stacking” of modules to build up to a bigger whole, it supports the recognition of a students’ prior learning which will be vital for learners dipping in and out of education over their lifetimes and makes it possible for those learners to take modules at different institutions.

It just goes to show how important sector-owned reference points are when it comes to sector-wide policy changes like this.

A million possibilities

So what could this bill mean for the sector?

Perhaps the most exciting thing about this bill is the possibilities it opens up by introducing long overdue flex in the tuition fee loan system, supporting the needs of a wider range of people and employers. The dominant three year full-time residential undergraduate model need be the default no longer.

This flexibility could revolutionise part-time provision, as the “course year” clause means part-time courses no longer need to fit round a full-time equivalent, opening up a more innovative and flexible approach. The flexibility in the system also has the potential to open up access to a set of far more diverse learners entering higher education and subsequently entering employment. The positive impact of giving those previously excluded groups access to higher education shouldn’t be underestimated.

We don’t know what we don’t know

As is usually the case though, the devil will be in the detail. It remains to be seen whether the government will choose to restrict the amount of funded credit that can be taken at a particular level outlined in the FHEQ.

With the current detail, it is theoretically possible for a learner to use all of their LLE on – for example – level four microcredentials. Which might be fine, unless they realise too late that they don’t have enough allowance left to complete a full degree. Good information, advice and guidance will be vital to ensure students can make informed choices about how to use the LLE to best suit their needs.

We do not yet have detailed analysis on the burden this might pose to providers, despite the government’s expectation that the bill will result in providers “designing and delivering many new… flexible courses and modules.”

Providers are financially stretched as it is, and the sector is already facing competition from organisations that do not have degree-awarding powers who can offer badging or CPD for short courses that aren’t linked to credit. If providing credit-bearing microcredentials are prohibitively expensive for providers, and employers prefer other recognition over credit, will universities follow suit, drop the academic credit and charge what they want or what they need to cover delivery costs?

And how will students be supported to engage with flexible learning? Maintenance support will be a key puzzle piece, as will ensuring providers have the ability to give learners the academic support they need to succeed – especially if that learner has only had periodic engagement in study. With cross-subsidies already necessary to fund cohorts of traditional full-time or part-time student support, will they stretch to supporting this new, more diverse cohort of flexible learners?

Quality matters

No doubt the government response to the full LLE consultation will provide some of these answers, including clarity on eligibility and maintenance support. There are some brilliant examples of innovative, flexible provision already offered by many providers that the sector can learn from. The Scottish and Welsh sectors’ experience of moving towards a tertiary approach might also provide valuable lessons learned to apply in England.

As the English sector grapples with the implications of the LLE, QAA is ready to support our members in putting policy into practice to realise the full benefit of lifelong learning. Ensuring microcredentials are of equal quality to modules on full degree courses will be paramount.

Just last year, QAA published a microcredentials characteristics statement which supports providers to think through all the implications of delivering microcredentials, including how to quality assure smaller chunks of learning. We will be reviewing the statement with our members again this year to reflect the fast-changing policy landscape.

As the lifelong learning policy progresses, technical solutions will need to be combined with wrap-around support for providers and prospective learners to make lifelong learning (at least at undergraduate level) not just a reality, but a cultural norm.

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