On 1 February the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill had a first reading in the House of Commons and was subsequently published – alongside explanatory notes, policy summary notes, a delegated powers memorandum, and an impact assessment.
To those who noted the plans in the Queen’s Speech it will come as no surprise to learn the government has avoided potential controversy about “low quality courses”, repayment terms, and eligibility requirements – focusing instead on the technicalities of establishing a credit based funding system.
The current mess
As things stand currently in England, maximum fee loan levels are set on a per academic year basis – with that value being £9,250 per year for courses where a provider has a valid access and participation plan and a TEF award.
This is frequently seen as a defacto standard sticker price – but a quick glance at the OfS’ Fee Limits Data shows that this hides a great deal of complexity. For something as basic as a year of a HNC or HND you could be paying anything in between £9,250 (at, say, Bishop Burton College) and £4,600 (at Middlesbrough College) and without some serious policy wonkery (for instance if you are an applicant unaware of what a regulatory specific fee limit condition is) you may be at a loss as to why.
Fees can vary based on whether on how a provider is registered, whether it has a TEF award and/or an access and participation plan, by the mode of attendance on a course (full-time, part-time, sandwich, study abroad), and there is a separate rate for accelerated degrees (which compress three years of learning into two by abandoning the idea of a summer break.
But this flexibility does not allow for fee loans based on short courses that take up less than a year of a standard degree. That’s what the Lifelong Loan Entitlement is designed to do.
Enter the LLE
We’ve covered the shape of the LLE on Wonkhe enough for most people to be aware that allowing people to access short periods of study at Level 4 (HNC level) throughout their working life is seen as a key way to continually upskill the workforce in England.
The first step towards the implementation of the idea came with the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill (SP16E) – the modifying of the bits of the 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act (THEA) to allow the Secretary of State to set fee levels based on things other than an academic year. Schedule 15 of SP16E introduced the idea of “modules” as a fundable unit of learning, and the Secretary of State also gained the power to set a maximum loan amount per person – a “lifetime limit”.
But this was all sketched out at a very broad level, and during the passage of SP16E through the Lords we learned that new primary legislation would be introduced to modify HERA in such a way that LLE would work – something that came as a surprise to those of us who were personally assured by the then Minister of State that the required measures would be introduced to SP16E via an amendment!
The Bill we have before us now introduces the concept of the credit into primary legislation for the very first time. Though the language of the Bill stops short of defining a credit explicitly the Explanatory Notes make it clear that ministers mean the commonplace understanding that a credit is 10 hours of notional learning (to include independent learning and guided learning).
Fans of the QAA Higher Education Credit Framework for England will be very familiar with this definition , and the way it relates to common qualifications like an honours degree (360 credits), HNC (120 credits), and Foundation Degrees (240). What does not bleed across from this framework is the idea of credits at different levels – a credit at level 4 will be “worth” the same in fee terms as a credit at level 6.
It does feel overdue that we get the Credit Framework enshrined in legislation as a sector-managed standard – it would help with the seemingly impossible goal of credit transfer, it is a worry that the definition of credit has the potential to drift over time, and the way OfS land-grabbed it in condition B5 is a concern. One for the HERA post legislative scrutiny, perhaps?
The idea of the LLE is that adults (eligibility to be confirmed when we get the consultation response) will be able to access the equivalent of four years of undergraduate study (so 480 credits, or £37,000) at any point throughout their life. In practice the Secretary of State gets to prescribe this maximum in regulations, which does have institutional autonomy vibes.
The new mess
And who gets to decide how many credits a given course (of whatever length) is worth. The examples I offered above are sector recognised standards, defined – effectively, as with other standards, by the sector for the sector (although of course the OfS attempts to own it via a publication called, without a glimmer of irony, Sector Recognised Standards in England).
A key objective of the LLE is that a learner should not have to pay more if they pay module by module rather than for a whole year of the course. The Secretary of State will therefore set maximum amounts for fundable credit available with respect to courses (the example given in the policy summary is that you can’t charge more than 360 credits for a three year honours degree).
However, providers will not have to use credits for full courses – and the policy plans recognise that nursing qualifications (for example) are not well suited for a credit-based system. These go into a special category called, confusingly, “non-credit-bearing” (the courses will of course bear academic credit, just not funding credit!) – the Secretary of State will set out these conditions in regulations, and separate rules will apply. The fee limit for a year of a “non-credit-bearing” course will be set as a “default” number of credits by the Secretary of State – with a promise that this will be based on standard sector practice.
Going with the flow
We get a handy flowchart in the explanatory notes, which I reproduce here:
Here the determinations of the Secretary of State in regulations will be used to:
- Determine the relevant fee limits (for example for credit-differentiated activities like placements and overseas study, and credit transfer, as well as a standard fee), and how they will apply
- Determine the maximum credit value for each course type
- Determine whether or not a course is “non-credit-bearing” – and determine a “default” credit value for such courses.
That is a whole lot of affirmative resolution procedure (needs a vote in both houses) secondary legislation to deal with.
Things to keep an eye on
Section 10, subsection 7(b) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) currently prohibits the Secretary of State from funding comparable provisions concerning different subjects of study at different rates – Clause 2 subsection 2(c) adds new language to clarify that this only applies to courses designated for student support by the Secretary of State (via s22 of THEA).
While, ostensibly, this is a precaution to avoid accidentally setting fee limits for all possible modules it does represent a weakening of the clause preventing variable student fees by subject. Variable fees on a subject basis are probably a bad idea as higher sticker price may cause some less well-off applicants to make suboptimal choices (though apparently this is absolutely fine on a provider level…). MPs and Peers may wish to look for a change in language here.
Not only will OfS have to up its spreadsheet game by publishing information on courses subject to specific fee level conditions (there is a forlorn hope it can do this broadly by types of course rather than listing individual courses), but providers themselves will have to publish details on how per-credit and fixed fee limits are to be determined by course year of each qualifying course – so lets hope this is reflected in the word limit for access and participation plans.
We don’t yet have a date for second reading, so there is time to pause and inwardly digest these new processes. Legislation does tend to make everything look more complicated than it is, and a part of the process of scrutiny is to pull apart every possible complexity even further.
But in reality, the majority of full time undergraduate courses in higher education will be funded on an annual level as now, and will be subject to fee levels as now. The changes are going to come with respect to part-time provision and short courses, both of which will now be subject to the credit-based system allowing students to pay for the learning they actually do in any given year rather than a flat annual course fee – though if you are still running a part-time year as 60 credits you won’t see much change here either.
For most courses placements and time abroad will be more accurately funded by fee loans (as we get a higher resolution method of determining funding rates), unless the courses are nursing-like in complexity.
The impact on students and wider society is more difficult to define, as is the financial impact on providers – the impact assessment takes things at a very high level and we are instructed to wait for the impact assessments that will come alongside the consultation response (I’ll be keeping an eye out for government amendments to this bill, and even more secondary legislation, at that point too). The new fee system will align, at least initially, with existing fee levels (so the freeze continues) – and, in case anyone tries to tell you otherwise:
[Additional administrative] costs however should be considered voluntary as there is no regulatory requirement placed on providers to offer greater provision of short and modular courses