- This guest blog has been kindly written for HEPI by Professor Edward Peck CBE, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and the first official Student Support Champion.
- Tomorrow (7 March), HEPI will be hosting its first Annual Lecture since the start of the pandemic, with Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD. For further details, see here.
One question raised about the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) concerns demand: how many adults want to study qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 rather than a full degree and, in particular, how many want to do so on a modular basis? Scepticism about demand has received succour from the reported numbers of students on the short course pilots run by the Office for Students (OfS); only 33 are said to have drawn down module-based loans from the Student Loans Company (SLC) since they began in Autumn 2022.
However, to focus on these small numbers is to miss the point.
- First, gauging interest from students and employers in modular provision was only one objective of the pilot.
- Secondly, there is a wide range of evidence that adults want to pursue technical and vocational education at Levels 4 and 5, some of which relates directly to modular provision.
Short Course Trial
The main aim of the short course trial was to test the appetite of both students and employers for shorter courses targeted at addressing skills needs in the economy. Another explicit intention was to provide insight for the OfS into how its regulatory regime may need refinement for these types of course. It was also designed to test how Higher Education Providers (HEPs) would develop, market and deliver short courses as well as to enable the Student Loans Company (SLC) to develop its systems to deal with applications for loans to fund study on modules.
The main objective must be viewed in context. HEPs began developing their short courses with funding released in four stages between December 2021 to March 2022, with the first courses launched in Autumn 2022. So far, we have data from just two intakes of a trial scheduled to run for three years; it would be premature to draw too many conclusions at this point. Furthermore, not all students who enrol will be drawing down loans from the SLC; indeed, the vocational orientation of these courses may attract more students who self-fund or are sponsored by employers.
The HEPs in the trial developed 104 short courses from design to market to delivery in nine months. This shows the considerable agility of these providers, but the short timescales alongside lack of public awareness ahead of the launch of the LLE will have impacted on student numbers in year one. The OfS has committed to publish an evaluation of the first year of the programme to share the challenges and successes of HEPs developing short courses that are intended to mirror the LLE and, presumably, its reflections on its regulatory regime.
Finally, although loan applications have been limited, the effective administration of those received shows that SLC systems and processes are ready to support modular study.
Demand for Level 4 and 5 learning
Putting the short course pilots to one side, there are tens of thousands of adults studying already on Level 4 and 5 courses, some on a modular basis. Let’s start with students studying on courses eligible for Advanced Learner Loans (ALLs).
Introduced in 2013/14, students aged 19+ studying so-called ‘non-designated courses’ at Level 4 could access ALLs for support with tuition fees. Today, ALLs are available in a wide range of vocational areas from levels 3 to 6. These courses are skills-based, largely provided by Independent Training Providers (ITPs) and Further Education Colleges (FECs) across England, and include courses such as Level 4 Diploma in Adult Care. Students can borrow up to £11,356.37. Repayment terms are identical to higher education undergraduate student loans. Numbers of students taking out ALLs have stabilised at 9,000 to 10,000 since 2016/17. Their low visibility – both in terms of their availability and some of the providers who run them – may explain why numbers are not higher.
Furthermore, the recent House of Commons Report uses HESA data which demonstrate that 12% of first year undergraduate registrations are not for traditional three-year degrees. Foundation Degrees (FDs) – where demand also seems to have stabilised after several years of decline – and HNCs/HNDs are skills-based programmes. Another 20,000 students signed up in 2021 to do these Level 4 and 5 courses. It is reasonable to assume that some of these students who did enrol – and many of those who chose not to – may have opted for a modular approach if it had been available.
A further 43,500 students were registered on ‘other undergraduate’ courses or courses that lead to institutional credit in 2021/22. Other undergraduate courses include, but are not restricted to, PGCEs, Dip/CertHEs, NVQs and other formal HE qualifications of less than degree standard. Many courses that lead to institutional credit are already modular. Learning identified as bite-sized, standalone modules covers a wide range of short-term learning. They include courses that offer continuing professional development (CPD). As 8% of undergraduate enrolments in 2021/22, as compared to 1% of those on HNCs/HNDs and 2% on Foundation Degrees, there is substantial proven demand for courses that offer short, skills-based outcomes at Levels 4 and 5 being delivered already by HEPs.
The In-Work Skills pilot was also a pathway policy for the LLE. Delivered by Institutes of Technology (IoTs). During AY 2021/22, 10 IoTs delivered the In-Work Skills pilot, which was a 1-year pilot that delivered high quality, higher technical short courses and modularised study provision that aimed to increase the uptake at Levels 4 and 5 to in-work adults. The IoTs delivered a total of 59 short courses to 3,060 learners from 747 different employers over a 6-month period, demonstrating again the demand for this type of provision.
Demand for part-time study
Historically, adult learners (that is, those entering HE over 21) made up most of the part-time student population where part-time numbers fell 54% from a peak in 2008/09 to 2019/20; with the decline fastest in 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14. Although the start of the trend predates it, this drop corresponds with the rise in tuition fees in 2012/13 to £9,000 (part time £6,750) and students only being able to draw down loans if: they study on a full course, in a fixed fashion, and for a specified qualification; and they had not previously studied an equivalent or lower qualification (the ELQ rule). I anticipate when the LLE is introduced, these restrictions will either be swept away or flexible alternatives will be made available through modular study. As a consequence, the number of part-time learners will increase again.
Changes being brought in via the LLE Bill will enable people to space out their studies. They will learn at a pace that is right for them through modular study, including choosing to build up their qualifications over time at a slower pace than traditional full-time study.
Demand for new qualifications
What current HESA data do not give us are the numbers of students who registered for Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) in Autumn 2022. Nonetheless, we can see that 90% of English domiciled learners entering Level 4 study and 93% of those entering Level 5 were joining an existing technical education route.
Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) are new or existing Level 4 and 5 qualifications – such as HNCs, HNDs, and FDs – that have been developed by awarding bodies in collaboration with employers so students can develop the skills that employers want. They have been approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education as meeting the knowledge and skills needed by the relevant sector. Approved courses show the HTQ quality mark logo, allowing potential students (and their influencers) and employers readily to identify an approved HTQ course option.
At present, HTQs are at the start of roll-out on a sector-by-sector basis, with 106 qualifications approved as HTQs so far across Digital, Construction, and Health and Science routes for this current academic year and next. By 2025, when the LLE launches, there will be 13 occupational routes available. Along with ALL provision, it is the modules of these HTQs that initially students will be able to access the LLE to study on a standalone basis.
Demand at a local level
The experience of NTU in launching new or revamped Level 4 and 5 technical and vocational courses is encouraging. Located on the Vision West Notts College site, our Mansfield Higher Education Hub has recruited over 900 students to date, of which 62% are aged 21 and above this academic year. This has been achieved through development of courses at level 4 and 5 – including FDs, HTQs, HNC/Ds – all of which provide students with a direct line of sight to local job opportunities.
Just as important as the course offer was enabling students to integrate their study with other commitments. For example, flexible study options, including block learning over an average of two regular days a week, have been central for employers to upskill their staff on a part-time basis. We are convinced that the additional flexibility provided by the LLE will only serve to enhance demand.
Overall, then, there are many grounds to be positive about the LLE meeting and expanding demand for Level 4 and 5 courses. The opportunity now is for HEPs to create flexible programmes that adults want to study. In this context, we should not worry too much about the outcome of a small and perhaps overly ambitious pilot.
 House of Commons Library, 2023, Research Briefing; Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, p.19
 House of Commons Library, 2023, Research Briefing; Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, p.14
 HESA Definitions: Students
 HESA, Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2020/21 – Student numbers and characteristics
 House of Commons Library, 2022, Research briefing; Part-time undergraduate students in England, p.1
 Introduction to Higher Technical Qualifications and scope of approval / Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education