On 14 August 2017, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the social mobility charity Brightside jointly published a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’.

Since 15 August, we have been showcasing the contents of this collection of essays in a dedicated blog series entitled ‘New Insights on Widening Participation’.

This blog, the thirteenth in the series, features the chapter written by Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, on extending access and promoting lifelong learning.


Personal Learning Accounts – extending access and promoting lifelong learning

Peter Horrocks

For decades, successive governments have struggled to create the economic conditions that would allow the UK to close its chronic productivity gap.

Theresa May is the latest to try to buck the trend. She commissioned a new industrial strategy in which the UK Government would use all the levers at its disposal to stimulate growth. She envisions a Britain that ‘works for everyone’, a society rooted in fairness and opportunity irrespective of class or background.

These are admirable objectives, which chime with the founding mission of The Open University (OU): increasing opportunity and social mobility through offering higher education to all, regardless of previous qualifications. It is an approach that has served us well through nearly five decades and we are proud to have helped more than two million students achieve their dreams and – just as importantly – improve their chances in life and work.

It is widely acknowledged that higher productivity is linked to higher skills. Employers bemoan skills shortages across the economy to justify the need to hire foreign workers. If the price of exiting the European Union is lower migration, those shortages will become all the more acute.

A cynic might say that if a magic wand could solve the UK’s productivity problems, it would have been waved long ago. But perhaps the solution is not beyond our reach if the UK Government works with employers in a sustained and integrated way, removing barriers to investment, growth and the development of a skilled workforce. Alongside that, the higher education sector needs to change to allow it to respond with a more agile, flexible curriculum aligned with the country’s needs.

Complex and rigid funding mechanisms for higher education and skills training in England would need a fundamental rethink to build in flexibility and a recognition of the changing face of work.

To be clear, I am not advocating a wholesale switch to vocational training at the expense of the wider academic excellence which underpins our university system’s global reputation. But I do believe there is a moral imperative to investigate innovative solutions that prepare our students for life in a rapidly evolving world.

Successive studies predict that technology has brought us to the brink of an era of change as far reaching as the impact of machines on the labour market in the first industrial revolution. Artificial intelligence is already allowing machines to learn and processors to operate at a capacity far greater than the human brain.

In the firing line are white and blue collar jobs alike – in administration, law, accountancy, medicine, wholesale, retail, haulage, public transport and food preparation. Estimates of the number of roles at risk vary from 30 to 50 per cent, but indisputably over the next two or three decades automation will eradicate millions of jobs.

History suggests that new jobs will emerge to replace the old, but that is no consolation if we do not have a workforce that is adaptable to change and employers who see skills training as integral to career progression. To keep themselves employable, workers of the future may need to retrain or otherwise improve their skills several times over their careers. Educational institutions, as well as governments in all four nations of the UK, are going to need to adapt.

The Open University has, of course, offered lifelong learning for the past five decades – that is not to score points, it is just what it was set up to do. But only now, as the reality of a potential skills crisis looms, are people starting to realise that it is a concept they will have to embrace wholeheartedly to keep the wheels of our economy turning.

Yet, for all the positive noises emerging from Whitehall, a series of government-imposed barriers to helping people to earn while they learn remain in place. It remains policy, for example, to halve by 2020 direct funding to universities for widening participation in England, which for years has underpinned the drive to open higher education to disadvantaged groups.

Funding changes under different UK governments since 2007 have led directly to a 50 per cent fall in England in the number of part-time learners entering higher education over the past few years. The proportion of part-time students in England is now significantly lower than in the other parts of the UK, which have not had the same funding changes. The OU now has around 554 students per million in England but the figures are much higher in Northern Ireland (764), Wales (861) and Scotland (1,211).

It is unrealistic to demand a return to the previous system but relatively small changes to the availability of loans could be transformative. If adult students could borrow for each module they study, they could progress while not feeling under pressure to commit to the several years needed for a full degree.

A more transformative step would be to develop a system of lifetime Personalised Learning Accounts to offer financial support to employees wanting skills training to suit their needs. This would drive a real culture change in lifelong learning and help open up education and deliver the Government’s agenda.

The existing system of loans and grants for both further and higher education in England is complex and inflexible. Finance is usually linked to the type of course and institutions and levels of support vary according to the mode of study.

A Personalised Learning Account would combine all potential sources of income – loans, grants, personal savings, employer or trade union contributions – into a single account. Individuals could use the account to pick and choose courses at one or more institutions at appropriate points in their careers. It would allow, for example, a smooth progression between further and higher education, particularly in technical skills, and create better opportunities for people to return to training when their careers and their employers most need it.

Personalised Learning Accounts could be used for both fees and maintenance support, although the two areas of finance would need to be kept separate. Funds could not be switched from fees to maintenance, although there is no reason why they should not move in the opposite direction. If the account was in debit at the end of training, loans would be repaid as they are now.

A government could choose to encourage its citizens for their own benefit to save into a Personalised Learning Account by offering to match funding. It could also use Personalised Learning Accounts to channel exceptional funding, perhaps to retrain people hit by the closure of a large local employer or to address skills shortages in certain regions.

Robust systems would be needed to prevent abuse. Many of the difficulties encountered by previous programmes to fund lifelong learning could be avoided by using Personalised Learning Accounts only for courses at registered colleges, universities or apprenticeship providers.

But funding reform alone cannot solve the country’s skills shortages and widen access. To be fully effective, it would need to be part of a package of reforms to qualifications and institutions, and in support of better career information, advice and guidance.

Changes of this nature need the active co-operation of employers. It is a big commitment to allow a middle manager or rising star months off to study but, if new skills can be shown to be useful to the companies or organisations themselves, that commitment might be forthcoming.

As the higher education market in England is opened to greater competition, the case for allowing students to build up learning credits and carry them between providers becomes stronger. That in turn creates the need for a streamlining of information available. Above all, we require a UK-wide agreement to provide a single portal in each nation for information, advice and guidance, from basic skills to further and higher education. This would allow adult learners to compare all the options in a single place, mapping against skill shortages in their areas, thereby reducing confusion and helping them work out which of the many available pathways is best for them.

The UK Government’s industrial strategy gives us an opportunity to think radically. To build a country which works for everyone we must make sure that we offer education and training that works for everyone.

Part-time and distance learning is a common way for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter higher education – most new entrants are between 31 and 60, the age group that arguably most needs help in adapting its skills for the future. The UK Government rightly points to the importance of full- time study for 18-year olds at further and higher education level, the need to expand apprenticeships and the desirability of flexible lifelong learning. The OU would like to see equal ministerial commitment to all three.

Every politician, employer and educator agrees that skills are the key to building productivity. Everyone in the workforce deserves the chance to improve their employability – and with it their life chances – through lifelong learning. With partnerships, goodwill, planning and co-operation, we can see a clear route to achieving both aims. Now is the moment to seize the opportunity.


Interested in reading more new insights on WP? Sign up to the HEPI mailing list for the next chapter delivered straight to your inbox tomorrow! Or access the full publication ‘Where next for widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers’ here.