Now is the time to take lifelong learning seriously

Martin Lowe identifies what would be required to make lifelong learning a real success in higher education

Martin Lowe is a Senior Policy Insight Analyst at University of Central Lancashire

While much of the focus following the DfE’s long-awaited Augar response concentrates on the changes to student finance and potential minimum eligibility requirements, emphasis on the government’s consultation on the lifelong learning policy area, and how we direct typical applicants to it, has been distinctly muted.

The peripheral discussion on this initiative has been positive so far, but the lack of regulatory bite (unlike proposals for SNCs and MERs) and long lead in time (2025 as the suggested starting point) has led some in the sector to put off tackling the idea for now while they fight fires elsewhere – or rather “we’ll believe it when we see it.”

The problem with this assertion is the question of how will this admirable policy area ever gain traction without relevant buy-in? If the sector fully embraced Lifelong Learning, it would be one of the most impactful changes to higher education in a generation, yet the key stakeholders in its success – universities, employers and students – are left indifferent and on the side-lines (for now), while the government pushes the agenda forward.

Universities

Higher education providers are mostly in one of two camps. The innovators with already established local employer links and relevant technical expertise on their books have already dipped their toe into the world of lifelong learning through OfS’ HE short course trial. Others are taking a strict watching brief.

But even within those who are ready to take the initial plunge, a full-scale change on the levels suggested remains a steep mountain to climb.

The dismantling of a typical three-year undergraduate course remains problematic for universities for many reasons. Firstly, academic coherence, a breakup into a Netflix style “build a degree” pedagogical model would undermine current sequential curriculum design.

Secondly, greater optionality and flexibility brings added operational costs – everything from student timetabling, academic workload, registry, student support and admissions services, the increase in options, in turn increases the burden across all areas of the student journey.

The fact that providers continually struggle with the complexity of the current credit transfer process is an early indicator of the tip of the iceberg which is heading the sector’s way.

The third relates to university finances and capability to remain strategically agile. Any portioning out of guaranteed £9,250 per annum fees facilitated by typical three-year undergraduate courses could potentially throw some providers into a boom-or-bust wilderness that would further reduce clarity of planning teams, and incentivise providers to moderate their levels of risk even further than at present.

Employers

There would be more clamour for such provision if employers spoke overwhelmingly in favour and voted with their feet in endorsing these routes. While there is clear reasoning that sector, local or even one-to-one business-related short courses are well valued by employers, how to scale up this arrangement remains a head-scratcher. How can you make a standardised qualification fit across such a wide-ranging employment sector?

“An honours degree” has grown to become a fundamental unit of currency in the vast majority of sectors. The fact that I myself, an Accounting graduate who has progressed through a career in HE professional services to date with little consideration for the subject I studied, rather purely the level of the award, is testament to the universal understanding that a degree represents.

Once you start to consider separate or combined 20, 40 or 75 credit modules, comparing a Level 4 in Education vs. a Level 4 in Children’s Learning & Development, the understanding of value quickly morphs into a form of individual experience, skills led consideration, which while more beneficial holistically, becomes less distinguishable in wider selection practices.

A qualification devised in a local employer-provider arrangement in Preston is less likely to fulfil the demand of an employer in London. Without a national (if not international) understanding of what is being offered, and what guarantees employers can gather from it, the qualification quickly reduces in value.

Students

Student buy-in is essential to the progress of Lifelong Learning, as they are the stakeholders that will benefit most from its success. But their backing of this policy area (or opposition to the status quo) isn’t broadly visible enough, as represented in the continued increase in traditional HE participation.

Flexibility and optionality remain top considerations of students when picking a provider, but the mode and delivery pattern that makes up the scaffolding remains focussed on typical provision.

With the new level 4 and 5 provision intended to be delivered (at least in part) by HE providers, this offers a marketing challenge to the sector. The current offer for 18-year-olds is a more binary choice between traditional HE, or separate, more vocational routes. To introduce a mash-up of the two as a third option demands attention to be put on defining what the target market is.

The generational aspiration to head to university has seen young student numbers rise past the 50% mark, and this threatens to continue growing during any LLE bed-in period. When pitting a short course with unknown graduate outcomes against a tried and trusted route with a well-defined student experience, and a route into employment, both students and their parents could very well continue to choose the “safer” well-understood option.

Another difficult argument to make is how best to diminish universities’ provision on typical 3-year courses, but simultaneously talk up the same provider’s level 4 and 5 provision, creating internal competition for student recruitment within institutions, and not just between providers.

Generating the supply (and the demand)

OfS and DfE initially aim to increase supply by diminishing the competition (traditional 3-year courses) through greater regulatory focus on student outcomes, a revamped TEF, student number controls linked to metrics and minimum eligibility requirements – all meant to squeeze entry to traditional courses, either by reducing the appeal to incoming applicants, or by suggesting students don’t know what’s best for themselves, by barring entry to the student loan book.

Additional initiatives through Levelling Up and reformed Access & Participation policy agendas push HE towards linking up locally with employers. But without well-structured arrangements to increase coverage from local to regional, national and international, the impact of such provision is unlikely to achieve that of traditional HE provision.

It is also to be seen whether a direct reference to four years’ worth of student finance through the LLE, alongside changes to the repayment period and threshold for future graduates will have any short-term effect on students and parents keen on making the best decision, and who are less likely to be focussing on the long-term financial costs and benefits.

Three things then can operationalise the push forward. Firstly, a national understanding of credits, including what skills can be gained and their transferability across all manner of subjects and levels; quite possibly through an externally monitored common modular framework.

Secondly, the sector shift requires buy in from universities and employers. If students don’t see the provision taking centre stage, as integral to a campus’ student experience, or a change in employment practices, then the traditional route is always going to offer more security.

Thirdly, it needs government backing both in monetary terms and within policy – in order for HE and employers to push this forward, as it isn’t necessarily in their interest to go for it alone into the dark.

The fact that this has been put out for vague consultation at this point means few have taken it seriously as yet. If this passes through another government without further clarity coming, there is going to be increasingly less appetite to take this forward.

In a game where each player waits for the others to make the first move, the true driver will be through how government enacts telling and credible incentives.


At Access all areas – getting in and getting on we’ll assess the current access and participation landscape and consider what will need to change in terms of outreach, information, advice, and guidance, partnerships and pathways between providers, and on-course student support to sustain and grow education opportunity in the years ahead. On Tuesday 10 May at the Mermaid in London: register now.

One response to “Now is the time to take lifelong learning seriously

  1. This is an excellent and interesting article, particularly the concluding ‘Three things to push it forward’ suggestions. I hope the DfE read this and give it some real thought. There is a big opportunity here for a genuine change within the sector, but a major risk that lack of clarity and operational planning will mean it never gets past the ‘nice idea’ stage.

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