Asking mature learners about the LLE

There's always been an element of wishful thinking about the design of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The appetite of mature learners for more fragmentary study has been largely assumed rather than evidenced – and Wonkhe readers will be no strangers to the idea that a little more work is needed here.

We got some of that today with a Department for Education sponsored research report into the perspectives of mature students on part-time study.

This is very much qualitative data – 20 semi-structures interviews carried out by current students aged over 21 who were working towards (or had recently worked towards) a higher education qualification on a part-time mode of engagement.

Most of these were studying with an eye on their current or future career, in the belief that the qualification they were enrolled on was essential or desirable for what they wanted to do in future. What is striking is there does not appear to be any differentiation (in the provided analysis, at least) from the value of a qualification – either as a means of unlocking a career, or as CV dressing – from the value of the learning itself.

Generally mature part-time learners tend to study at a local provider (though there were some on distance or online learning courses – though this tended to be more experienced learners, with those with less recent experience of formal learning reporting feeling intimidated by the idea).

But the main DfE interest would be in responses to this question:

If you could have studied for your qualification in modular form in a non-continuous way, for example with breaks in the period of study, collecting modules over a period of time to suit your needs, would that have influenced your decision in any way?

And the responses are as interesting as you might expect. Generally – learners were enthused by the idea of flexibility, in pausing or de-intensifying study when other parts of life got in the way. And there was some interest in being able to pick a more personal route through a modular course. But there was a lot of pushback about the likely impact on continuation and completion, with many interviewees suspecting they could easily have “stopped and not started again” in moments of frustration or challenge, or suspecting that a longer path to completion would have made them bored.

Learners liked the idea of a course structure leading to a named and well-understood award, with one noting:

Just having to think about the maths of, if I do this module then can I get this higher education qualification at the end. If you have to figure that out, I feel it would stress me out….
If I have just a collection of different things…It might be all over the place and then my interests or skills might not be clear. I worry about how that might look to employers

In the same way, although learners were not directly asked about credit transfer between this did not appear to be a popular option. Once you are used to an approach to learning, to tutors, and to a study location, it was felt there was little advantage in moving.

Some of the learners noted support from employers – with a few even having qualifications paid for by employers. But it was also noted that employer flexibility could be a problem, with employment-related tasks seen as more important than time to attend lectures or seminars. Linked to this, it was generally perceived that provider information about courses (especially on timetables and assessments) could be clearer, and more accurately communicated.

Almost all individuals who were eligible for a fee loan took it – the sheer cost of fees making this the only route that many could take to study. However there were reports of confusion where employers made a contribution to fees. There was a less uniform take-up of the maintenance loan, but – again – those who needed one could not have studied without access to these funds (often seen as a replacement for lost earnings).

In all it is hardly a slam-dunk case for the LLE – mature learners already in the system value qualifications and structure, and the demand for for flexibility in delivery appears to be at a far more macro level than the 30 credit chunks the LLE would offer. Of course, it could be that there are an army of mature learners waiting for precisely this, but there is still no evidence to back this idea up. Certainly mature learners already motivated to study do not appear to be looking for the benefits the LLE would offer – something that should (but won’t) give ministers pause.

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