The advent of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), which focuses on modular study at undergraduate level has prompted a great deal of discussion
Two recent blogs have addressed some of the limitations of the plans. Shruti Khandekar argues that the debate to-date has not considered online learners, and Mark Bennett contends that leaving out postgraduate taught study out of the LLE debate, which include masters PG certificates and diplomas, carries risk.
Both are critical areas to include if the government is genuinely committed to lifelong learning for the benefit of the individual, the economy and society.
Why postgraduate taught study needs to be included
The Postgraduate Experience Project (PEP) funded by HEFCE’s Phase 1 of the Postgraduate Support Scheme (2013) which was aimed at finding ways to re-energise the postgraduate taught UK domiciled market, found many business especially Small and Medium Enterprises did not need an employee to have a masters qualification and preferred to deliver in-house training. This was due to universities not readily able to deliver flexible offerings. With declining full and part-time UK domiciled masters numbers up to 2010, many institutions stopped part-time evening delivery and ran it alongside full time during the day because it was not financially viable. This just exacerbated declining part-time numbers.
As a result, one of the main suggestions from the PEP project was for universities to provide modular flexibility to support engagement and career support for the individual, as well as delivering the needs of business. SMEs make up 5.5 million private sector businesses so it is a large market in which universities could provide a viable offering.
Why LLE at postgraduate taught level could be so valuable
For those students who have only used three of their four year entitlement, by extending the LLE to postgraduate taught study, it provides an opportunity for individuals to access higher level specialist skills through a modular part-time structure that could be delivered in-person and/or online which Covid-19 has made very possible! Valuable and relevant modules could include business and management and continuing professional development, as well as technology related ones such as ChatGTP, which may be problematic for universities regarding assessments but incredibly useful for business and industry.
This flexible structure funded by LLE would enable those who do not want or need to undertake a masters degree, to accrue modules that could contribute eventually to a Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma. In England, due to the funding scheme, postgraduate certificates and diplomas are commonly used as exit awards for those who do not achieve the masters qualification. Part-time students especially, should not need to act in a strategic way by registering for a masters, paying their fees per year but withdrawing after they have achieved the certificate or diploma because they do not need or want the master’s element.
Impact of the postgraduate loan
Up until 2016, many individuals did not have the financial means to undertake further study because the career development loans available by banks were not an effective loan scheme.
The PG Loan scheme introduced in 2016 has undoubtedly been an enormous success and enabled many UK and EU domiciled (up until August 2021) to undertake postgraduate study. Different UK countries have different schemes and in England, which has the majority of postgraduate taught learners, the loan only covers masters study.
Student Loan Company data acquired by a Freedom of Information request shows that since their introduction in 2016-17, 492,697 loans have been provided to English domiciled students . The figures between 2016-17 and 2020-21 include first year and continuation recipients (for example, part-time).
The figure shown in 2021-22 is for the first year only. Of all first year English domiciled masters enrolments which was 105,830 (all UK domiciled was 132,265), 91,972 (86.9 per cent) were granted a postgraduate loan.
A debt too far?
Another reason why incorporating PGT study into the LLE structure is so important is that the debt level of English first degree graduates, who make up the bulk of UK domiciled enrolments at postgraduate taught level, could make further study not financially viable in the future under the present system due to accruing more debt.
At the time the PG Loan Scheme was introduced in 2016, the “£9k a year” undergraduate fee regime was only 4 years old with only one cohort having graduated. The sector’s leading researcher on student finance, Claire Callender, has long written about the impact of fees in England on undergraduate participation. However, there is little about the impact of undergraduate debt at postgraduate level because it continues to be a forgotten part of the sector.
In 2021-22, of the 105,830 first year enrolments of English domiciled students studying a masters, 72,618 (68.6 per cent) also had undergraduate debt accrued under the current fee structure.
Of those 72,618, 74.8 per cent had debt in excess of £40,000 and 11.9 per cent over £70,000. This debt will include any repeated years as well as longer length undergraduate courses such as integrated degrees with placements.
Figure 2 English domiciled undergraduate debt only entering masters study in 2021-22
It is important to note that undergraduate and postgraduate loans are paid concurrently, so a recipient of both will be paying 9 per cent for their undergraduate loan and 6 per cent for their postgraduate: totalling 15 per cent from their monthly gross salary over the set thresholds on top of tax and national insurance. And the reality is that the 21-24 year age category is the most affected because they comprise 57.4 per cent of all full time postgraduate taught enrolments.
The major concern universities and government should be thinking about now is not only could debt levels start to impinge on participation of English graduates at postgraduate level, but also their ability to afford rent or home ownership, pension investment and disposable income to put back into the economy.
For the first time since HESA started collecting data, international enrolments now exceed UK domicile and this is against a backdrop of UK population of under 18 year old continuing to grow until 2030. We know international postgraduate study cross-subsidises the education of domestic students and research. The sector has relied on the international market for fifteen years to sustain postgraduate masters’ study in the UK but in light of the recent announcement of the decision to remove the right for international students to bring dependants unless they are on postgraduate courses currently designated as research programmes, we cannot continue to rely on this as a mechanism to sustain postgraduate study.
As a sector, we need to make sure we put mechanisms in place now to create a sustainable and agile higher education market that benefits the individual, the economy and society. Incorporating LLE into postgraduate study is a start. As Professor David Watson, advocate of lifelong learning said,
The right to learn throughout life is a human right
It is our responsibility to make this happen.