Former universities minister Lord Johnson of Marylebone sought to save the English higher education sector from its financial woes on Monday, as the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill sailed through Lords committee stage. A second session scheduled for Thursday will now not be needed.
His amendment, tabled fashionably late, would allow for an automatic uplift of tuition fees with inflation for those “higher education institutions that deliver great teaching and student outcomes, as assessed by the Teaching Excellence Framework.”
In his remarks, he sketched out a link between the cost to the sector of getting fully on board with the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (which might be found in the time required for new course design, or increased wraparound costs for onboarding learners for short periods), and the increased instability of many institutions’ finances:
While it is very welcome that we are introducing a more flexible system of student finance, that is not much good on its own unless we address the relentless erosion in the value of tuition fees themselves.
I have always found it a little unreal that we have a bill that refers in its title to “Higher Education Fee Limits” but we have not actually had any discussion whatsoever of those fee limits… Carry on like this and we will have stretched the unit of resource to such a point that a crisis is inevitable. The LLE certainly will not be offered, nor will much else.
He proposed that his amendment was designed to force the debate over sector finances “into the open” and “flush out the extent to which the government – and opposition parties – are seriously engaging with this issue,” suggesting that this was an “immediately deliverable solution” (implemented from this September on publication of TEF results!) and far preferable to “another big review”.
Baroness Barran for the government trotted out the increasingly familiar line that the sector’s finances are not in that bad a shape, as evidenced by the Office for Students’ annual report on financial sustainability (based of course on 2021–22 financial returns).
But she did make the somewhat surprising offer to meet with Johnson – or providers – “to think about the scale and breadth of courses offered by individual institutions and groups of institutions within an area, as well as about how the cost base of institutions will develop in future.” Whether this out-of-character suggestion of strategic financial planning of HE from the government will bear any fruit remains to be seen.
The amendment was never in fact moved (JJ had left by this point), but as we pointed out at second reading, the fact that the bill is in grand committee made the question of voting for changes somewhat moot. It will be interesting to see whether the proposal gains any wider traction in subsequent stages, however.
Into the distance
Labour’s Lord Watson of Invergowrie wanted to have a conversation about maintenance support for distance learners (not included in the government’s plans, and as he pointed out, this omission has never been explained in any depth):
There is solid evidence that introducing maintenance support for part-time and distance learning students makes a difference; its introduction in Wales in 2018–19 illustrates the significant impact on demand for part-time learning. Surely the time has come to learn from Wales—not something that comes easily to DfE ministers or officials, I suspect. At the very least, this government owes it to distance learners in England to offer them the opportunity and then assess the results.
We also had Lord Addington calling maintenance for distance learners “blindingly obvious”, and Baroness Wilcox of Newport wondered about the effect of this omission on students in rural areas.
Baroness Barran confirmed that per credit fee limits will be the same for distance and in-person, and that the government will roll over the existing exemption for students with disabilities, with the Disabled Students Allowance extended to all designated courses and modules.
But the government’s rationale for not including maintenance eligibility continues to be very light on detail. We heard that there isn’t compelling evidence that the current absence of maintenance loans is hindering the growth of distance learning (proportional to total student number growth), and so therefore – while radically reshaping the whole of the tertiary sector – the government commits to sticking with the current system on this one specific detail.
Business as usual
Aside from Lord Johnson of Marylebone’s eye-catching intervention and the aforementioned head-scratching over maintenance, committee stage in the House of Lords hit similar notes to the bill’s passage through the Commons – tentative opposition calls for the definition of a credit by learning hours, for more thought into the minimum credit requirements (Baroness Thornton observed that for the many providers teaching 20 credit modules as standard, the 30 credit framing is inevitably unhelpful), and for statutory duties to consult the sector.
Other proposed amendments called for annual review of a whole host of the LLE’s impacts (on uptake, on traditional part-time study, on level 3 courses, IAG, and on the financial sustainability of the tertiary sector) – basically all the stuff it would be good to have planned for more in advance and with better evidence. We heard that the short courses pilot had been primarily intended to test the IT system at SLC – yet the government still doesn’t seem to fancy having a proper stab at assessing demand.
Lord Willetts worried that the LLE could lead to employers pushing employees into training via loan rather than investing in professional development – how did the government see the LLE interacting with employer investment? He and others were also (sensibly) nervous about how sure students could be that the LLE will really be around 30 years hence in making their decisions about when in their lives to access student finance.
Just as in the House of Commons, the government contended that either it was thinking carefully about the issues or that the detail would be better off in secondary legislation and regulations, and gestured to the existence of affirmative resolution procedures in the Commons as a (supposed) proof that parliamentary scrutiny of much of the bill’s operationalisation will still be possible. Baroness Barran did announce that the government would publish further detail of the fee limits regulations in the autumn, and invite further feedback – this would include detail on the maximum and default credit values for different course types. This is unlikely to allay concerns that the actual shape of the LLE is still taking worryingly long to come into focus.