MPs and vice chancellors debate the LLE

The bill scrutiny process continues but the questions are still being asked about the policy

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The topsy-turvy passage of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limit) Bill continued with the kind of hearing you’d expect the Education Committee to hold after the announcement of a major new policy.

The serious bill committee work of line-by-line scrutiny will continue at the next sitting, but this time round an impressive selection of the great and the good – having recently digested the policy decisions presented in outline in the consultation response – rocked up to the Boothroyd Room to answer some quite general questions about the way the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) would work in practice.

Confusion reigns

Malcolm Press, the avuncular Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, has also been leading on Universities UK’s work on this area of policy. Mirroring the general approach of the senior sector in seeing the LLE and short courses as probably a good thing, he did confess to some confusion about the way in which will affect the way most courses are funded.

Wonkhe readers will already know that it is the secretary of state that chooses whether to fund a qualification based on the explicit number of credits it includes, or the implicit credit value based on the kind of course it might be. We’re as lost as Press as to why the secretary of state gets to make this determination. But it is all rather confusing.

Many of the questions posed to witnesses, especially from the government side, invited responses on how great, transformative, or attractive the idea of loans for short courses are. A counter-theme that developed quickly was that, as attractive as such and offer may be, the additional administrative cost of opening a tiny component of an existing course up to all comers was not trivial. Later in the morning the hugely impressive Warwick Registrar Rachel Sandby-Thomas enumerated the cost implications for universities – from UCAS upload, through marketing, advice and guidance, prior learning assessment, admissions and onboarding, data returns, wrap around services… all in all:

None of us knows the answers, but they are all things that need to be worked out. I say this because there is little by way of incentive for a business case at the moment.

If you are thinking stuff like this is just your usual administrative whining about new things you would be wrong – almost the entire of the regulatory system is currently focused at course level, a convenience that the LLE offer deftly unpicks (it’s almost too ripely ironic that an independent peer-assessed inspection regime at provider level would be perfect for these new purposes).

Arise Sir Edward?

Edward Peck, the Nottingham Trent University Vice Chancellor who is rapidly emerging as a latter-day Dearing, was called upon to make the case for the value of the short courses trial. After a brief confusion as to whether or not he had a knighthood (honestly, if Gavin Williamson has one I don’t see why he shouldn’t) he answered the gentlest of Robert Halfon questions on the theme of enrolment numbers not being everything and great things waiting in the wings. His response:

The short course is only in its first year so far. It was trying to do something relatively quickly and it did not get as many students registering as you might have hoped, but I think it is premature to judge what might happen in years two and three of that pilot

Again, Wonkhe readers will know that at the end of January just 33 learners had signed up for the LLE-like SLC loan that is available, and less than two thirds of the providers initially involved are still accepting enrolments, which is honestly not encouraging for year one.

He was on the stand – albeit virtually – with Julie Charge (Head of Finance at the University of Salford) who reported some rather more encouraging figures based on her provider’s experience. Some 40 per cent of applicants were aged 26 to 30 and were either retraining after a degree or taking up initial training, whereas the “other big group” were retraining and upskilling between the ages of 36 and 40. Some 50 per cent took out the fee loan.

This is encouraging in terms of a demand for lifelong learning, but members did not ask Charge how many of these learners there were in total. The danger with the evidence for this initiative is that we convince ourselves that there is a demand for lifelong learning in the abstract (something that most of the sector is already aware of) without demonstrating that large numbers of people want to pay for it using this loan product.

Other sector luminaries made important contributions – David Bell (Vice Chancellor at the University of Sunderland) noted the need for a high-quality information, advice, and guidance offer. Sandby-Thomas urged the expansion of the scheme to (postgraduate) Level 7 given the likely training and development needs of graduates, Charge noted there was “some way to go” before the way in which credit transfer would work was understood.

Augar rides again

The afternoon session saw Philip Augar (he of the review) note that the whole scheme owed more to Allison Wolf than to him, before making the very astute observation that the demographic decline in 18 year olds would encourage universities to become involved in lifelong learning. We learned here that the uplift in the amount of funding available in an individual’s lifelong loan entitlement would rise by ministerial fiat and review rather than claiming a link to inflation – something for the truly lifelong learner to consider.

The final higher education session saw Sue Rigby (Vice Chancellor of Bath Spa University) make her characteristically thoughtful (she said “geeky”, which I think is fair) contributions to the discussion – I was struck in particular by her observation that students who needed to resit a module in the summer would do so for free if studying a full course but would need to pay if they were enrolled only on the module, something that feels unfair and does not have an obvious solution.

Rigby was questioned alongside Elizabeth Norton (a policy adviser at Coventry University), who highlighted again the regulatory burden issues that providers – even those with a history, like Coventry, of delivery innovation – would struggle with, and the impossibility of the B3 outcomes based regulatory model for quality assurance. How can you measure continuation, completion, and outcomes for a single 30 credit module? There was no answer forthcoming.

Policy clarity before legislation

Explicit government support for lifelong learning is – to be clear – a great idea. Given the demographic term ahead and the constant risk of technological revolution (or environmental catastrophe) it is clearly a huge part of the future of learning and the workforce. But LLE appears to have gestated in isolation from the reality of provision at level 4 to 6 – and assumptions on both sides are in for a serious challenge.

I’d love to say that I am sure the bill scrutiny process will sort it out, but given that the bill itself (sundry measures to give the Secretary of State more powers to set fees, which could be written on the back of a bus ticket) contains almost nothing of the policy that needs – urgently – to be settled I’m afraid we need something altogether more remedial.

If you wanted to catch up on the detail of the hearing, a report from both sessions is available on Hansard.

2 responses to “MPs and vice chancellors debate the LLE

  1. Philip Augar unwittingly misled the committee with his confident claim that his independent panel recommended a freeze in the unit of resource until 2025.

    The actual recommendation was: “The average per-student resource should be frozen for three further years from 2020/21 until 2022/23. On current evidence, inflation based increases to the average per-student unit of resource should resume in 2023/24”

    1. The Panel also said: “However, on current evidence we believe that attempts to generate further savings over this proposed funding freeze would jeopardise the
      quality of provision”. A shame the Shadow Minister did not have this to hand!

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