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Is the LLE your ticket to ride?

Is the lifelong loan entitlement actually a flexible travel card, or is it more like a weekend service on Transpennine? Mike Ratcliffe has a copy of the National Routing Guide
This article is more than 1 year old

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

There’s was a curious disappointment felt in the set-piece second reading of the Lifelong Learning (HE fee limit) Bill on 27 February.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) is variously described as a game-changer, and many hope that it is. Lifelong learning was the clear direction of travel for further and higher education, but we’ve ended up with a slow decline, hastened by ELQs and the unintended consequences of £9000 fees. Are are promised detail to come, for there are many questions about the LLE.

What we did get was an analogy to play with. The Secretary of State told us

the LLE will ensure that everybody has a flexible travel card to jump on and off their learning journey, as opposed to being confined to a single ticket

So, let’s run with that analogy.

A portable voucher

In England, for higher education, the £9,250 fee limited loan is a voucher. You can use it for a regulated course at a registered provider. You can step on and off at the same provider (breaking your journey on your single ticket) or you can transfer to another provider. The SLC allows an extra year, so you can start again – either after a go at a year or by going back a year when you move (course or provider). The voucher doesn’t have rules about which course (journey) it can be used on – but there are academic rules which constrain you. You can start on a chemistry course and then switch to business in a way that you can’t head off to Bristol from Paddington but decide to catch the train to Southampton when you get to Reading.

Most people travel first class

Your voucher allows you to borrow £9,250 and limits the fees at the majority of providers to that. The MPs in the second reading debate worried a bit about the low-quality courses they get told about. Any analogy with transport is going to hit the problem of low-quality providers. If you want to use your voucher on the Transpennine “service” you’re going to be prepared for disappointment. You’re also going to find that on most journeys there’s just one class. For those who get excited about the prospect of nationalization, this analogy is not for you.

At some providers you can only get a £6,000 voucher. Either because their fee is limited to that, or because they charge more.

Tap on – tap off

Now, although the Government’s analogy is a travelcard, this doesn’t mean the old paper ticket. This is not an unlimited voucher. The bill as introduced is about fee limits. The LLE might give you four years, but we know that they can’t let people use the LLE as an unlimited travelcard.

This all suggests that you can use your LLE voucher as a card like Oyster – that is capped as to how much you use it (and, of course, that you have to pay for it afterwards). This is where the policy wonks want to start to see the detail. Here’s some questions from the analogy:

  • On the train you can only take one journey at a time. With the LLE can you take two courses at the same time?
  • On the train you can repeat the same journey. With the LLE how often can you take the same module? Is that different if you take the same kind of module at a different provider?
  • On the train you can break your journey (not normally outwards). The point of the LLE is that you can do that, but there will be academic rules on prerequisites & currency etc
  • On the train you can go as long as you like in a day (if you have the stamina). With the LLE are you limited in how much study you can do in a year?
  • On the train, I don’t have to pass a test before I travel. With the LLE, is this open access? Are there MERs for modules?
  • On the train, if I don’t complete my journey that doesn’t affect my ability to travel again. Does the LLE have completion rules? Can I start as many modules as I like?
  • On the train, do they ask about my aim? With the LLE, presumably you still need to aim to get the credit, complete the assessment? Can I audit my module?
  • On the train, there are rules about your route, but not because the government disapproves of it. With the LLE, can you take modules in anything?
  • On the train, there are discounts for young people and old people. With the LLE how does this work? Can a 17 year old take a module before going to university? What is the age cut-off for the LLE, what does ‘lifelong’ mean here?

The bill is designed to keep the fee-limit for providers, but many of the questions are about how this will work for students There’s an issue in that at present the government sets an arbitrary fee-limit for accelerated courses, which means that the overall fee is lower than for a three year course.

What if, as a student, I combine several of the approaches above? There’s records for people who travel to every underground station or who use the £2 bus fare to go as far as possible. Can I take 120 credits of modules at university A term-time during the day while taking another 40 credits in the evening at university B and then can I do an intensive summer school at university C to get another 20 credits?

When I tap on, the transport system either charges me a flat fare or it starts counting how far I’m going. In London it caps what I pay, but not how many journeys I go on. The really complex questions come from knowing how that will work with the LLE. If I tap on for a £9,250 fee-limited course and stay for four weeks the SLC will send my provider 25 per cent of my fee. If I tap off before a particular date, it won’t send the next 25 per cent of the fee. If we are moving to modular funding, are we keeping the 25/25/50 splits? That seems like quite a big change to drop into regulations.

There was a question about the preparedness of the SLC. At the moment the SLC knows there’s a course and it knows its term dates. How is it going to know about modules? The pilot run via OfS has been for small courses with all the infrastructure for big courses. That’s not going to work with tap on and tap off.

And, just because in Higher Education we love to flog an analogy to death, what are we going to do about revenue protection officers? Barry Sheerman raised the spectre of the Lifelong Learning Accounts. Is the regulator ready for that? It seems good that government will rely on sector-owned mechanisms like the credit framework, but have we tested that?

Public good

Public transport is unquestionably a public good and the lifelong loan entitlement will be too. What we all want to avoid is the world in which the HE voucher scheme becomes mired in the complexity of regulation that appears to get in the way of people using the service. Lifelong learning also cannot become a scheme that just gets captured with those who’ve already benefited. We saw this happening with MOOCs.

Lifelong learning needs to be available to all, and not limited to those who already are already expert users. Let’s not have the equivalent of the need to understand split ticketing in allowing people to use the LLE to its full potential.

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