Line-by-line scrutiny for the LLE bill

Plenty of debate but no amendments for lifelong learning legislation

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

We’ve had expert witnesses giving evidence to the committee, we’ve seen (some of the) written submissions, and now for the third LLE treat this week we heard line-by-line scrutiny of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill as it continued through Commons Committee stage.

Labour proposed and made the case for a series of amendments to the text of the bill, and Robert Halfon for the government batted them all away. However, in doing so we got some additional detail of DfE’s thinking, as well as glimmers of how Labour might approach the policy in a possible future administration.

Credit vs fixed

The session began by picking up the question of which courses would use the credit-based method and which the fixed method, and whether the secretary of state, who will have powers to decide this in the legislation’s current form, should be required to consult the sector.

Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon emphasised that the government expects all programmes to use the credit-based method, except for all the exceptions – nursing, teacher training, Oxford, Cambridge, and others “more suited” to the fixed method:

It’s entirely up to providers whether to design courses that contain credit differentiated activities or not. Providers can continue to design courses which are just one type of study within each year, and those will not be subject to any of the rules around credit differentiated activities.

In the first of a recurring set of responses, Halfon assured shadow higher education minister Matt Western that regulations outside of primary legislation will follow “affirmative resolutions procedure” in Parliament and therefore there will always be the chance to debate them. The amendment was defeated in committee division.

Sector-owned definitions?

The question of how credit is defined, and whether it’s the sector or the education secretary who defines what a credit is, was the subject of a proposed amendment. Again, the minister resisted:

The government doesn’t intend to change regulations on the number of learning hours in a credit, unless standards in the sector change.

So it will stay at 10 learning hours, until it (possibly) doesn’t. Western suggested it would be “healthy” to have it in the bill, but to no avail.

The issue of a standardised transcript to facilitate credit transfer – and take initial steps on the matter of who is actually going to put their hand up and accredit a qualification based on the stacking of many modules at different providers over many years in presumably a mix of subjects – was kept out of the bill. “It’s intended to be a requirement in the regulations, but not needed for legislation,” Halfon assured.

Micro no-go

We then got to the question of why 30 credits is the minimum number of credits that can be funded, a point that has regularly arisen in sector challenges to the bill as currently written. Labour were just probing here, seeking to get Halfon to explain his thinking – he pointed back to the Augar review, and a sense that 30 credits is a suitably significant amount of teaching and learning to be sufficient for upskilling.

Interestingly here, Labour pushed a couple of times for whether the idea here was to review this in a couple of years time, and potentially revise the size of funded courses downwards once the LLE is up and running – given feedback from the short courses trial, international comparisons, and the question of whether employers will grant their employees 12-14 weeks out of work. Halfon didn’t commit to this, but you got the sense it was very much part of Labour’s thinking.

We then got an exchange on accelerated degrees (amendment 11 providing the justification). Halfon stated that for these, the maximum number of credits that could be studied in a year would be 180, avoiding the worry raised by Matt Western and Mike Ratcliffe alike that these courses are going to become financially unsustainable. We didn’t get precise detail on how this is going to work though.

Mammoth on a camel

After lunch, Matt Western brought up the question of cost and the wider financial health of higher and further education, via the metaphor of a mammoth reform potentially being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Further education got the lion’s share (to add another animal to the mix), but we also got reference to the “crumbling” of tuition fees under inflation and the assessment by providers that this would be a lot more expensive to deliver than the government is assuming.

Labour suggested that estimates of the financial burden to providers of the LLE was “massively understated” in the impact assessment, and repeated the concerns we’ve heard elsewhere this week around onboarding and departure costs, data burden, pastoral support and so on.

Western made a parallel with degree apprenticeships – lots of political enthusiasm and positive energy, but high administrative costs, staff time, and regulatory burden meaning that their take-up is an obstacle to many. Could something similar happen to the LLE?

Halfon encouraged the opposition to look back at the impact assessment calculations (maybe if you look hard enough they start to seem more realistic?) and gestured at possible increases in tuition fee revenues that tertiary education institutions might benefit from with LLE provision. We seem to still be far from having a good sense about either demand for or real cost of what the legislation allows providers to offer – Shadow Minister for Apprentices and Lifelong Learning Toby Perkins suggested the government was handing over a policy with great additional investment needed from whoever is in power when it comes into effect.

Both amendments (7 and 8) dealing with cost and financial sustainability were pressed to a vote and defeated.

Not taking the mickey

Amendment 10 was an interesting one – as the explanatory notes put it:

This amendment would ensure that the Secretary of State is unable to treat modular courses and other modes of study or subjects differently from one another for the purposes of the fee limit.

Matt Western raised concerns (from many in the sector) that ministers will discriminate against certain modular courses, and thus introduce differential fees – by subject or institution – by the back door. Hints of this, he suggested, could be found in recent “cartoon character names” used by the government to talk down particular kinds of programme (though of course Andrea Jenkyns went for witchcraft and wizardry rather than Disney).

Halfon suggested that the power to set differential fees exists already in HERA, and that Labour’s amendment was both missing the point and based on fears that would not be realised. While we already heard talk of “targeted grants” for priority courses in the LLE consultation response, which you could see as a hint that something in the region of differential is in the offing, the opposition withdrew the amendment.

Finally Labour tried to insert language into the bill to hurry the process along, provoking Halfon to note that “we’re not intending to lay the broader suite of regulations to enable the LLE until after January 2024.”

On the legislation more widely, Labour abstained on its forward movement, and professed to agree with the principle but have concerns over delivery, with a “real fear” that the LLE will go the same way as T levels and accelerated degrees in terms of much lower take-up than both predicted and hoped for.

4 responses to “Line-by-line scrutiny for the LLE bill

  1. Here’s a thing. I think we need to stop thinking of LLE as an add-on, like HTQs or short courses. The minister made clear:

    “I will just clarify, for the benefit of the Committee, that the Government intend for all courses offered under the LLE to use the new credit-based system for calculating fee limits. That includes longer programmes, such as three-year degrees, as well as short courses or modules, regardless of whether they are studied on a full-time, part-time or accelerated basis.

    There may be some courses that are more suited to annual fee limits than credit-based fee limits, for example postgraduate certificates of education or first degrees in nursing. Where that is the case, the intention is that the Government will set fee limits using a consistent rate of 120 credits per year. That includes for Oxbridge, where there is no credit system for degrees; there will be a default credit system for those universities.”

    If you use credit, and there’s no complicating factor like zero-rated placements (which are compulsory but which would break the credit system) the government thinks *all* your L4/5/6 courses are going to be funded via the LLE method. The SLC mode of funding via tuition fees for a course (in turn inherited from the LEAs) is going to change.

  2. To add to Mike’s point, a big change resulting from the LLE reform is that every new applicant for a degree or higher level course (L4-6) is due to get a tuition fee cash entitlement from 2025 onwards rather than the currrent message that it’s one go at this level and then you’re on your own.

    The tuition fee cash entitlement will either be £37,000 or a lower amount for those who already graduates but the plan is to remove the ELQ rule which marks a big change given that much of the research ten years ago on the fall in part time HE enrolments identified ELQ as a big factor.

    We’re not going to find out how the residual entitlement is calculated until later in 2023. Given long lead times in HE course development, marketing and admissions, it seems likely many parts of the HE supply side will continue to offer the same sorts of courses to the same markets as they do now but this big reform of student loans creates an opportunity to do something different

  3. Don’t think we learnt much from that at all. The Minister’s – unchallenged – assertion that the affirmative resolution procedure will provide any substantive check on the very wide powers under the Bill is laughable – it is 45 years since the Commons last rejected secondary legislation and the Lords has only done so four times since the Second World War.

    Hopefully, the Lords will give the Bill some proper scrutiny…

    1. To give them their due, Matt Western and co were trying to get more into the legislation – only so much the opposition can do in committee stage

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