It is already time to reform the lifelong loan entitlement

Staffordshire University's Annabel Kiernan wonders why there is so much work still to do at this late stage on the government's lifelong loan entitlement policy

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

I’ve taken part in a number of lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) focused events with colleagues across the sector, the Department for Education, and the Office for Students (OfS) – the latter of which have been doing heavy lifting to determine technical aspects of LLE implementation.

The scale and quality of consultation in and around the sector makes me hopeful that we can get LLE right – however, tension remains that the policy may be trying to do too many things at once.

For example, how will the government piece together the notion of lifelong learning societal and individual good with the more instrumental demands such as economic productivity and the need to increase the sum total of degree level learners? There is still much that policy needs to do in order for the sector to deliver: institutional structures will need to be transformed, regulation and quality must be considered, and provision will need to match any evidenced demand.

New to the Lords

Today (Monday 19 June), the House of Lords will be holding the second reading of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill. The bill – in its current form constructed as 30 credits allied to a parent qualification – may result in an increase of degree or higher technical uptake from 2025, and a similar increase in degree qualifications from 2027, but how will this work with the government’s idea that learners can dip in and out of learning to upskill, reskill, or simply out of interest? How can provision be developed to create demand for learning over 10 years or 15 years, or indeed lifelong?

The recent revelations on the uptake of the short course trial show that something isn’t working in the LLE experience as currently imagine. Do 30 credit units create too many financial barriers? Is 300 hours of learning not short or flexible enough for learners or employers? Indeed, do we have a clear picture of who LLE learners are?

To echo others writing on LLE it seems that learners at a distance from education and the labour market – irrespective of the amount of available information, advice, and guidance – will not be able to easily navigate a modular system nor a multi university credit transfer system. So who is the LLE really for? The short course trial clearly demonstrated the limitations of the current approach. We are in danger of not learning from that.

Bundleable bundles

The OfS have provisionally accepted that providers can bundle credits to total the 30 credit LLE learning block (for example, 3 x 10 credit modules) – but funding below that 30 credit limit is seen to present a quality assurance risk and to create the wrong kinds of economic incentives on the supply side. But if bundling or stacking of smaller components is permissible why is the quality of each component part being impugned? Providers already offer 15 credit short courses for example, and if there is no question of the quality of those then perhaps this is a redundant argument.

Smaller modules may allow agile contemporary skill development rather than a traditional response based on our own perceptions on who learners are. We should think about learners differently – considering that they are lifelong and that they are able to respond to needs of new technologies throughout their working life – so we need to incentivise these groups to take up this offer. The financial and time barriers of a 30 credit minimum does not meet that need or expectation.

Post-92 providers, in particular, spend at lot of time thinking about the “place” in which they are located and how they can work with the local community and local employers to increase social mobility and improve the life chances of those in their local area. Consequently, regional education solutions are needed. Courses and modules developed in response to the LLE should be responding to this need, with providers working with employers to upskill the workforce, but also ensuring that the proportion of higher-level skills increases in regions with large pockets of disadvantaged and marginalised communities.

Short stack

Many senior stakeholders are wary of proliferating modularisation at 10 credits where there is no specific end (i.e. a parent qualification) and that incentivising poor economic behaviour on the part of providers should be avoided.

However, we need more evidence to better understand whether smaller credit modules and credit stacking might work. Piloting 3 by 10 credit bundling as part of the short course trial will help to develop the evidence base to support successful policymaking in relation to the LLE.  Furthermore, if the LLE doesn’t allow smaller credit blocks to be funded against a backdrop of a national narrative and the full-blooded launch of LLE announcing its flexibility and accessibility, then the sector will face the challenge of unregulated private providers offering low quality bite-sized, bite-priced learning which purports equivalence with a sector offer. There is lots to learn from other country contexts; Canada is now dealing with the consequences of an unregulated microcredential landscape, but Wales is developing promising models of flexible HE delivery.

If the purpose of LLE is lifelong learning, and not simply increasing the sum total of degree level learners, then its current format is limited, and therefore debate on maximising this policy opportunity needs to happen.

Why constrain lifelong learning?

The current LLE is not the radical disruptor it promised to be. It has been narrowed to make it possible to implement but without any evidence of demand for this type of learning – as the short course trial demonstrates – whereas there is proven demand for other types of adult learning. For now, LLE simply exists as an amendment to the student finance system – as it stands only currently funded Student Loans Company products will be funded by LLE. Where do we innovate within the limitations of this system?

Lifelong learning does have the opportunity to support the emancipatory and transformation collective good that higher education can offer, but the LLE is in danger of further turning higher education solely into a transactional activity.

We need a model that is transformative and fit for purpose. The Government should be looking towards stackable modular pathway routes through education, in appropriate credit sizes which meet the needs of a wide range of lifelong learners, and which also meets the needs of employers, delivering real flexibility and tailored education and for regional economic and social mobility (or levelling up).

This model should be situated in a place-based tertiary system to facilitate joined up and collaborative post-16 education, and one which can underpin different learner choices while addressing the value divide between academic and technical education – this will need new funding arrangements, but this could have been done with the response to Augur.

The emphasis should be on funded technical routes through a regional tertiary model utilising a more flexible apprenticeship levy as the funding mechanism: like LLE but using microcredentials and short courses to meet portfolio skills needs, with financial risk therefore shared with employers. And there also needs to be space in the LLE for the arts and humanities, and this aspect should be encouraged.

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