This article is more than 1 year old

Government priorities are everything, everywhere, all at once

Annabel Kiernan and Vanessa Dodd call for coherence between lifelong learning plans and other aspects of higher education policy
This article is more than 1 year old

Annabel Kiernan is Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic) at Staffordshire University.

Vanessa Dodd, Head of Education Research and Evaluation at Staffordshire University.

The second reading of the fee limits bill offers a chance to reflect on where we are now and where we should go next.

We urgently need positive government and sector action to align disparate university policy so that it works for all stakeholders, enabling universities to play our part in regional growth.

Machinery and opportunity

David Willetts recently made the case for universities to change departmental hands in order to capitalise on science and research investment and to restore a ministerial brief for universities. He makes an important point – universities are currently being pulled in too many directions, with too many contrasting government narratives to be able to successfully deliver on the skills agenda for which they are so well placed.

We know that government can see the value of universities to the skills agenda but more coherent policymaking on universities is necessary. Policy thinking has been creative regardless of any judgments – such as the suggestion 50 universities are needed in cold spots to support levelling up.

Also, universities can do more to reflect and align current policy to support our students and communities. The skills agenda, equality of opportunity risk register (EORR), the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), and the delivery of educational gains are all place-based concepts which could be operationalised coherently.

As part of our Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submission, we offered new ways of thinking about how individual “educational gains” can be translated into collective”‘educational gains” for our locality. This reflection has led to greater collaboration across different parts of the university – business engagement, research and community engagement alongside our learning and teaching colleagues.

Opening the doors

We see the LLE as a next step to greater collaboration and the EORR as a mechanism to support the development of flexible learning to widen access that address regional education needs. The LLE is one – and significant – way to open the doors to greater partnership working with business to deliver local economic growth.

At Staffordshire University we have developed microcredentials and are participating in the Higher Education Short Course trial because we know different types of access points into higher education will upskill and transform our local area. We have ambitious plans to do more that delivers higher level skills for our region.

We know that businesses want to work with providers to deliver flexible learning. One seeming success of the Higher Education Short Course trial was the ability for universities and business to get around the table, outside of the existing apprenticeship arrangements, and identify short- and medium-term business needs, which will have a longer-term pay off, and co-create an academic offer.

Lack of demand

Unfortunately to date, uptake and learner appetite for 12-14 week “short” courses remains weak. Employers and learners tell us that 12-14 weeks is not “short”. There is more to do here to make sure that legislation incentivises innovative approaches.

Labour’s call to broaden the apprenticeship levy to a wider skills levy seems sensible to explore – although we acknowledge the funding landscape here makes changes to the existing levy complex.

The size and delivery mode of the offer is also important and the minimum of 30 credits to trigger a loan drawdown may remain too inflexible to incentivise completion of these qualifications.

We believe that a hybrid approach to modular learning is important so that local learners can benefit from campus facilities, academic expertise and exposure to a variety of pedagogical approaches. Providers may want to explore how different sizes and shapes of learning work for business and for learners. The phrase “evaluation, evaluation, evaluation” rings true here as part of our investment to increase equality of opportunity.

B3 brakes

Unfortunately, the OfS’ B3 conditions of registration may also inadvertently dampen the government’s efforts to deliver on the skills agenda. Responses to policy may remain risk averse response rather than spur innovation in thinking on how to make flexible modular learning work for learners and for business to drive regional economic growth.

Policy here must be joined up to ensure regulation of quality for traditional course structures doesn’t negatively affect government attempts to incentivise universities to develop new and flexible higher education routes. It makes sense now that if we want to “level up” regionally we break down those traditional silos within universities which operate on separate policy agendas – business engagement, learning and teaching, research and innovation and community engagement – to make the skills agenda work.

The roll out of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement is still a few years away. To really capitalise on this, we need government to better acknowledge that universities are key to the skills agenda and that we need positive policymaking to enable us to work across all areas of the university to help deliver economic growth.

Positive policymaking for universities to innovate modular delivery, coupled with robust evaluation, will lead to a better understanding of what works, why and how, so that providers can respond with evidence that delivers economic growth.

3 responses to “Government priorities are everything, everywhere, all at once

  1. Until I read this article, I did not know “The size and delivery mode of the offer is also important and the minimum of 30 credits to trigger a loan drawdown may remain too inflexible to incentivise completion of these qualifications.”

    This 30 credits is far too high. It represents half a University year. It implies a minimum loan of around £4,600, equivalent to a loan for a good second hand car.

    Who constitutes the target market the Government has in mind for these loans? I would say the market is tiny, very, very small. The low take up during the current pilots may represent the future uptake.

    This scheme could be heading for being the biggest waste of money since the Millennium Dome!

  2. (@albertswright – 30 credits is quarter of a year – maybe an electric bike loan – but still too much.)
    A genuine micro-credential should be made up of perhaps 2 or 5 credits (20 hours or 50 hours of study respectively). The B3 condition and the requirement to do well in the GOS, together with the lack of clarity over equivalent qualifications, are perhaps bigger barriers to overcome with OfS, etc.. If lifelong upskilling is the aim, then it’s likely that study of additional – micro-or otherwise – credit, will be at a similar level to study already undertaken. To remain employed, someone may have to undertake the equivalent of an extra half of a degree to ‘keep up’ – so barring further study at the same level over a long timeframe would be counterproductive. More detail needed.

  3. I absolutely agree with Annabel and Vanessa that the OfS ‘B condition question’, and the uncertainties it is generating, represents a significant barrier to the innovation of skills-led, microcredential learning by Universities. There are two competing positions that I experience being at the centre of the microcredential issue:

    1. business expectation that microcredential learning should be able to react to market needs, be brought to market quickly (in weeks not months), and be packaged and delivered flexibly (including online) – with the ability to build in bespoke elements where appropriate;

    2. a regulatory position that does not clearly distinguish between microcredential and ‘standard’ credit-bearing learning and which makes it difficult for universities to devise and justify the differentiation in assurance that is required to innovate and react to business expectations. The default is to apply existing QA approaches which reduce perceptions of regulatory risk (i.e. are considered ‘safe’), but can prevent the development of flexible, quick-to-market, innovative microcredentials that employers and skills-led learning demands.

    Clear regulatory differentiation and guidance is urgently required. Microcredentials are a form of credit-bearing learning, but structurally they are the antithesis of traditional credit-bearing learning (microcredentials are ‘jump-on-jump-off’ and will commonly operate outside of longitudinal programmes). Many of the protections provided by the OfS conditions of registration are designerd for traditional degree students and are of limited relevance to a microcredential learner. In a regulatory setting where greater intervention is being threatened, thoughtful differentiation of the regulatory conditions governing microcredentials is needed before universities will feel ‘safe’ investing in them.

    In the meantime, non-regulated providers and overseas universities with global online offers, continue to have a competitive advantage in the skills-led learning market place. Business and learners will find it difficult to benefit from the world-class, globally respected education offer that UK universities can provide, the quality of much of the skills-led education in the marketplace will be uncertain, and the UK HE sector will fall behind its global competitors in the area of tertiary education predicted to have the highest growth in the coming decade.

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