Low numbers make for short course trial failings

Low applicant interest in short courses and tuition fee loans means the £2m OfS trial tells us very little about appetite for the LLE. David Kernohan has the caveats

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe


It has to be said the number of students taking out a short course loan during the first year of the Higher Education Short Course trial fell significantly short of government and regulatory expectations.

More than 2,000 students were initially projected to engage with 100 short, module length courses offered by 22 providers during the 2022-23 academic year – with support for course development provided (to the tune of £2m) by the Office for Students.

A part of the rationale for the trial was to examine how easily universities and colleges could convert existing modules into stand-alone courses, but it was also anticipated that the trial could tell us more about the applicant and student experience. The low participation means that data on these latter issues is subject to major statistical caveats – being so uncertain about so much does suggest that the trial may not have worked as planned.

Recruitment problems

The evidence of low awareness and low participation provided by today’s independent evaluation report (conducted by the Career Research and Advisory Centre on behalf of the Office for Students) will not come as a surprise to those who have been following Wonkhe’s coverage. But there are some surprises still in store.

Due to low enrolment just 17 courses (at 10 providers) actually ran in 2022-23. That’s about £120k per course.

In all, 125 students participated in these short courses, with around half (62) not paying any fees at all, due to university agreements with employers. In some cases, this employer was the university itself. There were just 240 applications – an entry rate of just over 50 per cent.

Just 11 students went for the student support bursary – a provider-based maintenance loan added to the offer during the summer that not all providers chose to offer.

Four out of five of the students enrolled on the courses already had a degree – it is estimated that 80 per cent had been in full employment before or during the course. There was some evidence (based, of course, on very small numbers) that courses were attracting older (30+) students, but some 40 per cent of enrolments were for younger students (below 30).

More than cut and paste

The experiences of providers in developing short courses from existing modules was telling. Courses of all descriptions needed to be “tuned” to the appropriate academic level, and to the student context and experience (this would have been easier due to the very low student numbers).

Employers are clearly a key market for such provision – as they are for existing short course offers – and their demands were as expected: shorter courses (a semester or a year is not seen to be “short”, less “fundamental knowledge”, and less content overall, with more focus on key skills. Students, in turn, were surprised at the extent of work (especially self-directed work) required.

The credit bearing aspect of courses was only of glancing interest. Employers were split between not seeing the value of credit at all, wanting the option of a non-credit bearing route, and expressing a preference for modules of around 10 credits that would stack.

Market failure

The reasons for the startlingly low interest among students probably represents the most valuable findings for a government determined to make the Lifelong Learning Entitlement policy work. The evaluators noted that:

  • There was low awareness among potential applicants of the concept of a short courses
  • Providers were unable to present any certainty about the future value of academic credit gained via a short course – either as a component of a future academic award, or as a career or employment benefit.

The offer was a new one, and this novelty was compounded by a rule that providers could not use their OfS trial funding allocation for marketing or awareness raising – such costs had to be borne elsewhere. There has been a notable absence of marketing for the LLE at a national level – back in April DfE tendered for a £2m 24-month contract for “LLE communications requirements” (with specifics yet to be finalised). We’ve heard nothing since.

On the value of credit it was frequently expressed that a recognised national arrangement for credit transfer between providers would have helped matters – as government thinking about this currently amounts to ministers asking Universities UK to sort it out for free it is difficult to hold out much hope.

But selling the course is just one part of the problem – the idea of a fee loan also needed to be promoted. The low take-up here could point again to problems with marketing, but it is also fair to ask whether fee loans for short courses are attractive. The majority of employers seemed to expect to pay fees for employees (some expressed hope that the apprentice levy could be used). Of the 41 students who did take out a loan just 10 responded to a survey about the experience, and though 8 noted how central the loan was to their ability to afford the course, there was also widespread feedback that the application process was slow and cumbersome. With concerns about the Student Loans Company implementation of the LLE account systems, it is difficult to imagine this getting much better either.

Always learning

The design of the programme clearly caused some fairly major issues. The timeframe was heavily compressed, expectations on providers (especially around the use of their own funding alongside the constrained OfS grant) were high, and guidance was limited.

The same, alas, can be said for the launch of the LLE in 2025. It feels like everyone is expecting a delay to this date – prospective students, providers, and the SLC will simply not be ready in time. For a population-level entitlement that has the potential to be genuinely transformative the complete absence of marketing and promotion thus far is a concern – and a large campaign launch between now and the expected November general election (recalling, of course, the proscription of government communications during the “pre-election period of heightened sensitivity”) feels very unlikely.

What’s striking is how closely these findings match those of the recent Public First polling, and my initial response. It looks like the LLE will primarily benefit existing graduates, already in employment, to learn new skills.

A very expensive way, in other words, to subsidise training that employers should already be offering.

One response to “Low numbers make for short course trial failings

  1. The big question is how much the pilot can tell us about potential demand for module-by-module study towards qualifications in the LLE given its many flaws (these were all stand-alone short courses) and the almost complete lack of marketing effort (zero funding for this in the pilots and no national spending either)

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