The lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) consultation response added further weight to the government’s commitment to lifelong learning.
While there remains a sizeable question mark around demand – we’re still to hear how the government plans to strike up interest from all parties, the broad sentiment across the sector remains that this is a worthy policy direction that has the potential to widen access and participation.
One of the areas of contention, however, surrounded eligibility of modules for funding. Flagged in the summary of the sector responses, it was argued that ignoring standalone provision that wasn’t “stackable” to a formal qualification
could remove some of the flexibility of the LLE, particularly as not all learning might be undertaken to achieve a specific qualification – some should be undertaken simply to upskill in a given area.
It was surprising then, that five pages later the Department for Education confirmed that any LLE module capable of drawing down funding must be
part of a designated full course (“parent course”) so that modules can be stacked towards full qualifications.
Dismissing an argument so prominent that it made it into the summary of the sector responses suggests the DfE have already clarified their thoughts on the matter, but why are they against standalone provision?
Small but mighty?
We’re presented with the intention of a policy that aims to enable learners
to study, train, retrain and upskill throughout their working lives, responding to life events, changing skills needs and employment patterns.
It’s a common-sense approach; one that seeks to boost skills quickly, at a cost-efficient price to the taxpayer.
Limiting the scope of the provision then, to only those pre-existing slices of a full qualification pie, a mode of delivery ironically treated in the consultation as the problem rather than the solution, seems at odds with the policy’s origin.
Given the changing skills landscape, driven in part by emerging sectors such as net zero and artificial intelligence, it would be counterproductive for DfE to instruct institutions to create full qualifications, in which to introduce a single module’s worth of content or alternatively mould it to fit a pre-existing rigid programme structure, to meet an in-demand short-course opportunity.
Choosing to exclude standalone provision risks leaving these reskilling opportunities either seemingly disconnected from its larger parent qualification, or only truly useful when taught alongside the predesigned curriculum.
If the focus of the eligibility remains on stackable provision, then the difficulty of appealing to both sets of learners – those on the predefined qualification route and those enrolled for a sample of it – becomes a difficult balancing act.
The eligibility rules risk separating modular provision into two sets; one set being useful, the type of learning that gives you skills and relatable employability outcomes, and another being nice to know, potentially more conceptual, richer learning, equivalent to that of the full qualification.
In the future, could we see a differentiation in ambition of learners taking up different parts of the same qualification – as we do already between traditional and more vocational subjects; will we see separate entry criteria emerge for each; will one become more valuable than the other?
Integrated student experience
While universities continue to grapple with their existing provision to meet differing student needs: be it home and international, resident and commuter, or in-person and remote; opening short course access solely to provision that fits into full qualification routes will mean that differences in modal expectations and experiences will now need to be factored in within the same classroom.
There is also the potential disruption that differences in prior learning presents. Having to cater for new students whose prior understanding falls outside the usual system of expectations of minimum knowledge and skills, could end up proving harmful for the module’s effectiveness, lose momentum for the existing learners on the traditional route or risk having a stigmatising effect on the incoming flexible learners we’re trying to reach out to.
There are benefits to be had from this mix, of course. Different perspectives and real-world understanding can enhance the learning environment and provide context to a traditional setting. Yet, there are potentially more difficulties than there are benefits when you consider the wider student journey, learning communities and student services allocation, not to mention timetable restrictions of two very different learner groups to be factored in.
These examples present the potential obstacles for academic staff, students, and wider support services if universities are funnelled into providing these opportunities from within the constraints of a full qualification.
Instead, by affording funding for standalone, reactive provision that can pivot to sector and market demands, to evolve and accelerate learning for those who need it, you open the possibilities for lifelong learning to truly flourish.