“New, flexible, student loans” from 2022?

I do love a stretch target

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The full guidance for the DFE/OFS “Short Course Trial Challenge” has dropped, and it is now impossible to see this as anything other than a staging post to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

The pilot is not so much to test the ability of the sector to deliver short, sub-degree courses (they’ve been doing that for years) but for regulatory and funding regimes to cope with the concept. Oh, and it will also test the interest of students and employers in shorter courses – which seems like a longwinded way to learn that the existing world of short professional courses is attractive to mature learners already in employment.

Here’s the DFE release, which leans heavily into the view that short courses are an entirely new development never before seen in academia.

The pitch

Indeed, providers are asked to develop the courses from existing qualifications at levels 4-6 – there’s a total of £2m available (between £25,000 and £100,000 each, non-capital) to cover 20 projects at Approved (Fee Cap) providers. The development process runs – and thus the money needs to be spent – between December 2021 and March 2022. Delivery will commence from September 2022 (the sound you just heard was your academic registry exploding) but student funding – including fee loans – will need to be specifically enabled by the Secretary of State (boom! there goes your finance department and the contractual end of your admissions team). Fees will be “no more than, and preferably less than, pro-rating the normal full time annual fee” which is totally how economies of scale work.

We get a first taste of what “small” means: 30-40 credits, or around two modules worth, running no longer than a year. There needs to be an assessment at the end (which appears to preclude ongoing assessments…) and students will get a completion certificate at the end of the course. If you are a small specialist provider thinking about offering up a short course on live audio engineering, divinity, or logistics, bad luck – only STEM, education, “digital innovation”, and health care is of interest with a particular interest (in COP26 year) on “net zero”. Your proposed course needs to be tied to local or national skills needs, and must include employer contributions in development and delivery of the course.

Future funding clues

Gavin Williamson is going to do individual course designation, and you’d better believe he’s not going to designate any course for fee loan eligibility where fees are more than the pro-rata value. Just in case you don’t get the hint, the maximum fee loan for 40 credits will be £3,080 and the fee loan for 30 credits will be £2,310.

The message on student eligibility is a promising one – ELQs and age don’t matter, and students can access finance for the equivalent of four of these courses with this not typically (not “typically”?) affecting their ability to get a standard fee loan for a degree later. What we don’t know is whether these students will also be eligible for maintenance loans – I’d hope this is clarified a bit before the courses are advertised.

Bids are due in by 28 September, so if you are keen you had better get on it. There can be only one (lead) bid per provider, so probably best to check with the smoking ruins of your registry first.

State of the sector

As it happens, I’ve been working on identifying sub-degree provision in the unistats dataset. This visualisation shows all the HNCs, HNDs, Foundation Degrees, and Certificates/Diplomas available by provider, with subject filters. I’ve shown accreditations by professional bodies in the tool tip.

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You’ll note environmental sciences are particularly poorly served at the moment, with most provision (other than a countryside management FD in Aberdeen) available in on the west coast for some reason.

It’s easier to see the overall subject spread on this view – education and sports sciences courses dominate, with the bulk of alternative provision focused on business and theology.

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The swathes of orange suggest that it is FE colleges that dominate this arm of HE, but in pure numeric terms the big hitters are in Wales, with the University of Wales Trinity St David as the clear leader. Most (but not all) of these courses let by universities are delivered by a partner college via a franchise or validation arrangement.

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In other words, the terms of the OfS conditions of entry (approved fee cap only, England only, the short list of subjects) doesn’t entirely mesh with the existing strengths of the sector in shorter, sub-degree, provision.

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