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.
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.
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.