A more flexible funding system needs to apply to maintenance not just tuition

There was a pretty silly policy floating about a few weeks back.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It proposed allowing young people to borrow the same amount as they can in student loans, but allow them to spend it on… anything:

Others will likely use the money to get set up in life: using it as a deposit on a home, buying a car, or moving somewhere with better job opportunities than their hometowns. In many parts of the country, owning a car is absolutely vital to access a bigger job market than your immediate surroundings offers.

Probably a lot of people would spend some (or a lot!) of the money on holidays, boozing and socialising. That’s fine – fun is a significant part of many students’ university experience, and is a good reason to go to university. If the loan allowed people to have more fun without going to university, it would give more people access to one of the key parts of a university education without the time and cost of doing a university degree. It seems bizarre to say that only studious young people should have the ability to get drunk and party on a Wednesday night, but that is what the current system entails.

I’ll not waste word here on why I think the idea is unlikely. But it did get me thinking about the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).

Generally, the LLE has been sold as a fund that can be accessed in chunks over you life – the total being the final E in LLE.

It’s also sold on the basis of flexibility – not everyone’s the same, it allows taking things at your own pace, and so on.

As such the big fault for me is the lack of associated focus on maintenance.

Vague-aries of the LLE

The impression has been given that there will be a maintenance offer alongside the LLE for in person learning (though not for online to the chagrin of the Open University) but as with everything else LLE the details are vague.

There’s a danger the 2027 credit-based funding scheme is being planned as if it’s PT students taking a module a semester, but it needs to cope with FT students taking one module fewer a semester. Let me explain.

If we think about no detriment, safety nets, mass mitigating circumstances, and self-certifications during Covid, the objection leading to rowing back (especially in the Russell Group) was based on academic rigour and grade inflation.

The insinuation was that we’d made degrees easier.

For me the main problem with that argument was that for some with supportive families, resources and less distractions, it was easier.

For others hit hard, it was… harder. The mitigations corrected for the latter group – but obviously we didn’t say “make the regulations tighter for the rich ones with decent mental health to balance it up”. Grade inflation was therefore inevitable and right.

But obviously we also have to unpack what we mean by “easier”.

Reaching a level

In most cases we gave people longer, or more attempts to, demonstrate competence. Driving tests, in other words.

In a more diverse sector I can’t see much wrong with that in principle, and it’s the central principle of the LLE too – variable pace.

But when you combine adaptions for diversity with an obsession with sorting people based on a fixed time limit, whether that’s through an exam or in the confines of an academic year or three years, you hit problems.

Lots of exam adaptions make logistics tricky. Lots of self-certs make marking tricky. And so on.

That’s because you’re giving people more/longer attempts within a time and funding system that says you’ll be judged both on your competence and on the pace you get there in competition with others around you.

And measures designed to address equity often feel unfair to those not in receipt of them.

The key problem is that a student struggling with their mental health or with a bereavement or whatever is either full time or not. And if not, they lose access to maintenance.

And if they really do little LLE chunks, maybe no maintenance at all.

What would be infinitely preferable is a student reducing their study intensity but still being able to draw down full maintenance.

The big danger is that if maintenance is linked too closely to credits, it’s nice that the course year thing would mean you only pay for the modules you take.

But if you drop one, while you’d pay 7/8 of the fee, would you lose 12.5 per cent of your maintenance loan? Huh?

This works the other way around too. Currently you can get (a little bit) more maintenance on a long course. Under the LLE, if I take say 100 credits in a standard course year will I be able to have more maintenance loan?

Put another way, why right now (in all but a few rare cases) can a student take a full tuition fee loan without full maintenance but not a full maintenance loan without full tuition?

If you accept the idea of a fixed amount of loans, why wouldn’t we have a system that allows you to live while dealing with life – albeit that in doing so you’re using up some of your maintenance entitlement?

If we must have limits on maximum entitlement, why not allow a student to do a 180 credit programme at a slower pace but use up 4 years maintenance entitlement while doing so?

We kind of just about allow that for a hard years’ fail. But that’s a daft way to do it.

A low country

I’d go further. In the Netherlands we found vast numbers of full time student volunteers, not paying fees for a semester but incurring maintenance loan debt for a semester to run associations and other projects building community and delivering peer support on campus.

In fact we can barely find a European country which requires 120 credits to be completed in 3 years – where the UK does that and only allows an extra year for failure or illness or repeating, Europe allows students to have FT student finance and… take longer.

Ultimately if I have a family crisis or a desire to serve others the idea that I get a multi car pile up of later deadlines, or I have to drop out altogether, is nonsensical.

And yes ideally no fees, and yes ideally you wouldn’t penalise someone’s long term access by eating into fixed entitlement, and yes ideally grants not maintenance loans.

But set that aside and I think a true LLE that supports learning, flexibility and diversity would allow students to not have to face the binary choice of struggling in the same intensive race as peers, or dropping out just to cope.

It would help with all those deadline extensions and resits and the lack of student volunteers we have around these days, and wouldn’t really cost much because more successful students tend to pay more back.

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