You may recall back at the start of this academic year we reported on the answer to a Written Parliamentary Question where Labour’s Emma Hardy found out that just twelve students had enrolled on a qualifying course in the first September of the government’s short course trial.
As the first “live” test of demand for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement it was hardly a glowing endorsement for the idea that undergraduate-style loans were the key to a skills revolution. Prospective students had access to fee loans covering the full cost of the course, and providers had ring-fenced bursaries (a total England-wide value of £2.5m) to support such students in their other costs.
The much missed Andrea Jenkyns was minister at the time – she told Hardy that:
“The nature of these short courses means they are not tied to the concept of the academic year and providers have discretion on when to deliver these courses. The department expects the majority of courses to start from January 2023
So Emma asked the question again in January 2023. She’s just been told that:
The department is gathering and evaluating data throughout the trial alongside the Student Loans Company, Office for Students and providers, and will use this to inform the development of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. We currently have no plans to publish any specific data.
You’d feel like a successful first year of trials of this landmark proposal would see DfE proclaiming results from the rooftops. The absence of specific data surprised me (given that surely nothing would be more embarrassing than “twelve”, although as we shall see maybe I was wrong) because a precedent has already been set. So I went digging.
There’s a list of 104 courses involved in this pilot in a list available from OfS and DfE. Just 26 are currently advertising a future start date as things stand (to be fair, we have just passed a January start date, so pages may be in the process of being updated – but the idea was for rolling entry). Sixteen of these courses no longer even have a page on their university website.
Courses appear and disappear in university portfolios all the time – developed to meet an identified need or take advantage of a new opportunity, and discontinued (generally) due to low enrolment.
I also asked the Student Loans Company for details of the number of fee loans accessed under this programme. It is of course possible that people are enrolling on these course without taking out fee loans, but as the fee loans are the “new” aspect here (universities have been running short CPD courses for ages) I thought it was fair to pose the question.
Since the start of the programme there have been thirty-three (33) applications for student finance as a part of the short courses trial. This – as above refers to fee loan applications only, others may fund their course via their own (or employers funds). Honestly – 33. There were more people on the original “Do they know it’s Christmas?”.
Beyond all this, a sector-wide allocation of £10m was designed to allow providers to develop further such short courses – though apparently this allocation was no longer needed as of last month and has instead been assigned to “hardship funds” (what was once the Student Premium). There’s clearly no issue with funding being redirected from government wheezes to supporting struggling students – but we should be pausing at the idea that these funds are “no longer needed for the purposes we had originally identified”.
Governments and regulators run trials to test out ideas before devoting serious policy energy (and money) to making them happen. Clearly not every idea will emerge perfect and fully formed, and the findings of pilots and trials can be used to identify at an early stage where something needs to be tweaked. I would suggest that the limited appetite shown among learners for an undergraduate loan to pay for a short part-time course should be giving policy-makers pause.
Now, it could be that this programme is in fact flourishing – that I have misread the signs of a demand-side issue within the government’s flagship skills intervention. With the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill published, and a consultation response due, I will be looking very closely at what DfE are saying about who actually wants student loans for short professional development courses. Because there is a disturbing lack of evidence as things stand.