This blog was written by Annie Bell, Head of External Affairs and Communications, University Alliance. Annie is on Twitter @AnnieVBell.
With the consultation deadline for the Department for Education’s Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) proposal closing on Friday, so approaches the opportunity to completely transform the face of higher education.
No one would disagree with the LLE’s stated objectives around access, social mobility and skills. This could trigger exciting, radical and positive change. As the consultation’s 49 questions demonstrate, however, when you start to think about making it a reality, things get complicated.
Well, there is nothing like a bit of urgency to focus the mind, so at University Alliance we shut senior teaching and learning staff from our fourteen member universities in a room and gave them two and a half hours to design an LLE that might work. The result is our new publication, Lifelong Learning: a blueprint for success. It does not have an answer for every challenge, but it does propose a number of ideas which could turbo-charge the delivery of the LLE.
At the heart of this exercise lies a question: can the LLE live up to its potential simply through changes to funding and regulatory systems and some well-placed communications, or are new innovations needed? UK universities are pretty good at delivering on the demands placed on them, so the former would probably be fine. But if ‘fine’ is not what we want, if we want ‘transformational’ or ‘revolutionary’, then new ideas might be needed.
Here are a few that have come out of University Alliance’s work, informed by Alliance universities’ expertise as some of the leading skills providers in the country.
Regional education hubs
One of the most important areas to get right is ensuring that the LLE is sculpted by demand, through understanding and engaging with the needs of learners and employers. Existing demand should be responded to, and new demand should be encouraged.
Education hubs developed at a regional level would act as a link between learners, education providers, local, regional and national skills bodies and employers. They will bring together these groups to provide information, advice and guidance (IAG) to learners, support providers to understand learner and employer demand and facilitate collaboration between employers and education providers at all levels.
Quality IAG will be the cornerstone of a successful LLE. While tools provided by organisations such as UCAS and the national careers service will be essential as a starting point for many learners, in-person advice and local outreach will be needed if the LLE is to reach those who will most benefit from it.
Education hubs would be responsible for coordinating schools, employers, job centres and other influential bodies in the region to ensure they are working to provide potential learners with accurate information about the opportunities available to them. They should also have small centres, based in existing structures such as an education provider or a job centre, where learners can come for in-person advice.
There are several mechanisms, existing and in development, for mapping employer demand at local, regional and national level. These include the Future Skills Unit, Trailblazer Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Education hubs would pool information from across these initiatives, as well as working with local employers, including SMEs, to understand skills gaps and training needs. Through their contact with learners as part of IAG activity, hubs could also develop a picture of learner demand at a regional level.
Through this work, hubs would develop networks across regional further and higher education providers and employers. This will put them in a strong position to broker partnerships between these groups, particularly around specific needs they have identified.
A national learner record system
One of the biggest challenges posed by the LLE is how to facilitate the movement of students between multiple modules studied at multiple providers. There is a suggestion that this could be done effectively by building on existing agreements between institutions. Alliance universities have many such agreements in place and are ready to work in partnership with others. Making this work across all providers at a national scale, however, will not be easy.
A national learner record system (NLRS), modelled on the national pupil database, would be transformational, enabling the seamless transfer of credit between institutions in a way that places minimum burden on learners.
Each student record could then be front-ended with an ‘E-Portfolio’ that presents the learning of each individual, allowing them to easily evidence the qualifications and skills they have gained.
Obviously, this would be a highly complex system, with data protection issues attached. But by engaging the right EdTech partner, government could develop a system that would overcome many of the challenges associated with the LLE in one fell swoop.
But how do we pay for all this?
Sadly, in two and a half hours, we weren’t able to solve the problem of higher education funding.
However, what is clear is that there is a risk and an opportunity associated with employer investment in education and training. The risk, as highlighted by many others, is that the LLE will encourage employers to shift responsibility for funding training on to the employee, asking staff to use their LLE entitlement to fund their own CPD. These concerns are not unfounded. Employers in the UK already invest relatively little in employee training: the average amount employers spend on training per employee in the UK is only half that of the EU average.
What Alliance universities have seen in their engagement with employers though, is that there is an appetite for funding the development of graduates with the skills they need. Particularly in areas where there are skills shortages, employers are more than willing to invest in training and education. The crucial point, though, is that employers must feel confident that they will see a return on that investment.
Two things will help capitalise on this opportunity. Firstly, government should actively encourage employer investment in education, and should consider new mechanisms and incentives for doing so, while reviewing existing mechanisms to ensure they are working. Secondly, regional education hubs or similar initiatives should be used to develop much closer partnerships and mutual understanding between education providers and employers.
We all want to see the LLE work. We all want an accessible education system that really powers the UK forward. That will require innovation, imagination and creativity. Luckily, the higher education sector has those things in abundance.