As the leader of a university established to promote flexible lifelong learning for the past 20 years, I’ve long argued the case for better support for it.
I’ve met many education secretaries, university ministers and party leaders who have agreed how important it is for the individuals who chose to continue to learn, for social mobility, and for the economy.
Yet over those 20 years, very few if any government policies have supported lifelong learning. Indeed many, such as the failure to extend fee loans to cover part-time learning until 2018 and the ELQ rule (which prevents someone from obtaining a loan to cover the cost of tuition that is at the equivalent level or lower than their existing qualifications), have made it far harder for universities to deliver lifelong learning and for mature students to re-enter education.
This is why I think we should celebrate the fact that the lifelong loan entitlement finally brings lifelong learning to the centre of the university funding system and enables people to study both full degrees and short courses, throughout their adult life.
It is true the uptake of loans to cover short course tuition fees in the ongoing trial is disappointing, but this has to do with the conditions imposed on the pilot and the way it has been run, rather than calls into question whether there will ever be demand for fee loans for university short courses.
The pilot has failed because it has been developed on the assumption that mature learners are the same as young undergraduates and there is a cohort of them waiting to study short courses, in the same way there is an annual cohort of school and college leavers waiting to enter university.
Birkbeck’s experience is that the value of lifelong learning needs to be embedded in the national psyche and demand for short courses stimulated through a national campaign, rather than on an institutional basis, as has happened with the pilot.
Mature students often lack the confidence to apply to university, particularly if they are doing so for the first time or have been out of education for a long time. They are more likely than younger counterpart to have caring or work-related commitments, as well as financial ones, such as mortgages, outside their studies. This makes them likely to be loan averse and the decision to return to learning, even if it is to study a short course rather than a full degree, is particularly difficult for them to take.
Studying will require them to make significant sacrifices and the decision to pursue it takes time. Some years ago, Birkbeck undertook a study which revealed that mature learners often take two or more years from finding out about a course, to apply for it.
Many mature students also do not know that financial support is available to cover fees. Unlike school and college leavers who have career advisors, teachers, peers and often role models, who are knowledgeable about the availability of fee and maintenance loans, most people who could apply to study on one of the short course pilots are unlikely to know they exist, let alone that there is financial support available to cover the cost of the fees.
Narrow and shallow
The pilot also failed because it was restricted to a narrow range of subjects. The LLE should not be restricted to loans for studying a small selection of STEM and vocational courses only. Recognition that higher education, whether through short courses or full degrees, supports the development of transferrable skills, and that the arts and humanities are just as valuable to the UK’s economic prosperity as STEM subjects, is long overdue.
If the objective is to make short courses or modules truly portable across institutions so that students can bank credits towards a final award, should loans for degrees obtained through studying portable modules really be restricted to a narrow range of subjects only?
The pilot was similarly unsuccessful because mature learners want access to flexible learning designed around their busy lives. Birkbeck’s teaching is mainly in the evenings to enable students to maintain day-time commitments beyond their studies. We began developing online provision to support in-classroom lessons prior to the pandemic and like many others, found that moving more provision online during the pandemic, had a significant positive impact on attendance and attainment. This was particularly the case for mature students.
I do not believe that the poor engagement with the current pilot indicates there will be limited future demand for short university courses, nor uptake of the LLE. I think the pilot would have been far more successful if it were led by institutions experienced in delivering lifelong learning. I also think that the uptake of the LLE will be far higher if the ELQ rule is abolished, and it isn’t restricted to a narrow subject range.