LLE Bill reaches report stage

There's surprisingly few amendments, but what is there is targeted and thoughtful

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Given the decision made to hold the Committee stage in Grand Committee (thus allowing only unanimous consent to amendments) Report stage marks the first point during the passage of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill where peers are able to press amendments with a realistic chance of success.

The marshalled list shows that just four have trickled in over the summer recess – and two of them are versions of the same idea.

Amendment one puts the common definition of academic credit expressed in notional learning hours (one credit means ten hours) onto the face of the bill. The definition itself is hardly controversial – it has underpinned the QAA-led Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) for years, and is even duplicated on the official OfS list of “sector recognised standards.” Instead, putting it on the bill addresses a widespread concern that ministers will be able to arbitrarily change the definition of credit for the purposes of the funding method the bill enables.

To be fair, ministers have been clear throughout the passage of the bill that they do not intend to do this – and on one level adding the text to the bill can be seen as a sensible codification of this promise. If the government choses to oppose this amendment they would really need to explain why they are doing so – the argument that a sector recognised standard does not belong in legislation really does not wash, as it is currently entirely possible for ministers to change the definition for the bill only. Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden, in putting this so plainly, has left the government facing a difficult situation.

Amendments two and three both ask for a report on the impact of the bill to be laid before parliament in 2026. Baroness Garden’s version (amendment two) simply requires a review, focused on skills gaps in the UK and sharia-compliant loans, on the impact of the method of determining fee limits by credit. The Labour version (amendment three) argues for an annual review of the provisions of the act on (deep breath) learner uptake, access to higher education among the various groups the LLE is ostensibly aimed at, employer spending on upskilling, the provision of courses in higher and further education, the financial sustainability of tertiary education, the regional impact of LLE, and skills gaps in the UK – with the first one due one year after the “roll-out” of the LLE.

Both these amendments play into a sense that demand for (and the possible impact of) LLE-style provision has not been well researched. All we really have is a tiny qualitative research report and the OfS/DfE short courses trial – neither of which really make the case for mass demand for 30 credit modules paid for by an undergraduate style fee loan. There is plentiful evidence for a demand for lifelong learning, but it is important the government doesn’t get to read across support for this particular model of support for lifelong learning. Certainly the short courses trial – which, by the end of last academic year showed that substantially more people applied for short courses than applied for the funding – has rather neatly demonstrated the opposite.

At second reading the Lords DfE spokesperson Baroness Barran promised to write to peers on the results of the first year of the short courses trial – this has not happened, and indicated that the OfS would publish detail of the initial fundings of the trial – again, this has not happened. On that basis it feels like a good idea to require in legislation an annual report on the operation of the LLE, on the grounds that the government would have to do that rather than making hand-wavy gestures about upskilling.

Amendment four¬†is a cross party attempt to get a review of the impact of the act on the progress of the LLE out before the government gets to bring in further regulation on fee limits. This doesn’t sound like much, but would do serious damage to the government’s plans as it would prevent further regulations on fee limits – and because this skeleton bill requires further secondary legislation to actually set fee limits in the first place (and thus make the LLE work) it would stop the entire process until the work had been done.

My colleague Michael sets out what I think is an emerging consensus in not thinking the 2025 start point for LLE is feasible – he does this by referring to the judgement of the DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood that the programme faces “significant delivery challenges”. All amendment four does is codify the main challenge – to get the regulatory ducks in a row – on the face of the bill, but given the smoke-and-mirrors approach to LLE implementation detail (the Student Loans Company has been very quiet on this whole issue, wouldn’t you say?) it feels like a sensible response.

The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limit) Bill doesn’t have far to go – though we’ve no date for third reading yet we’ve conference recess in a couple of weeks, closely followed by the King’s Speech on 7 November. The Bill would need to be carried over (not difficult, but unusual in the Lords – it’s only happened four times) or it would fall. Successful amendments would be the last thing DfE wants in the race to get this one over the line.

2 responses to “LLE Bill reaches report stage

  1. “Amendment one puts the common definition of academic credit expressed in notional learning hours (one hour means ten credits) onto the face of the bill.” Other way round surely – 1 credit means 10 hours?

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