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Try Before You Buy – How the Lifelong Learning Entitlement could transform full-time higher education

  • 26 September 2023
  • By Mary Curnock Cook
  • This blog has been kindly provided by Mary Curnock Cook CBE, a Trustee of HEPI and chair of Pearson’s UK qualifications business. You can find Mary on Twitter/X @MaryCurnockCook.
  • For information about the events that HEPI is hosting at the forthcoming party conferences, see our Events page. These are open to all and outside the secure zones – meaning you do not need a conference pass to attend them.

Much has been said and written about the (recently renamed) Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) which will provide modular funding for Levels 4, 5 and 6 qualifications. A lot of the discourse assumes this will be mainly for part-time learning for older students wanting to upskill or reskill after a period in work. Pearson has recently published a Policy Spotlight on the LLE pointing out a number of areas which could improve the LLE construct to attract such learners. But in this blog I want to make the case for utilising the flexibilities of the LLE for new approaches to full-time higher education for school and college leavers.

The HEPI / AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) has for many years tracked students’ satisfaction, behaviours and attitudes to full-time undergraduate study. This year I was struck again by the number of students who say they would not make the same choice of university and / or course if they had another chance.

Source: HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey 2023

The proportion of students saying they are happy with their original choice of course this year was 58 per cent, down from 64 per cent in 2019 and 2020. This leaves over 40 per cent who, given another chance, would defer their studies, change to a different university or course (or both), do an apprenticeship or join the workforce – with over 140,000 school leaver-age students each year who feel stuck with a choice that they come to regret. 

While the report goes on to show a correlation between dissatisfaction with the original choice of university or course with the rising cost of living at university and the increased need to take on part-time work, entering a commitment to a three-year full-time programme is a big ask of students who are 17 or 18-years old when they make these potentially life-defining post-school or college choices. The 2023 admissions cycle is already showing a drop in demand from school leavers to progress to higher education, with indications that this could be the largest drop in recruitment of school leavers since the advent of the £9,000 tuition fee regime in 2012. 

The LLE, available from 2025 for ‘modules of some job-specific technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5, including Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs)’, provides an opportunity for universities to test a try-before-you-buy model for full-time students. Students could enrol full-time on an undergraduate programme one year at a time, knowing that they could exit with a meaningful qualification at the end of that period, or progress to the next year and level, or to a different programme or university if they wish. Asking sceptical school leavers to sign up for one year instead of three could drive new demand and widen participation.

Pearson already has a growing suite of Higher National Certificates (HNCs) and Diplomas (HNDs), many already designated as HTQs, which are fully modularised and available to universities as qualifications awarded by Pearson or under licence for award by the provider and customisable to local or regional skills needs. These and other HTQs offered by various awarding organisations would allow universities to avail themselves of the LLE flexibilities from the start of the offer in 2025 to test demand for an initial one-year enrolment model for school leavers, gauge demand for progression and continuation to second and third years and track destinations for those who do indeed exit after one year. Arguably the HNC / HND brand has better recognition value for employment than a CertHE. And a one-year introduction to higher education could offer students a higher value alternative to Foundation Years, which will attract a lower tuition fee from 2025.

Such a change to the full-time higher education model would not be without challenges or costs. Although, in theory, this model is available now without the LLE, few providers have specifically marketed this as a higher education pathway that students can follow at their own pace. Regional collaborations, credit transfer agreements and other articulation mechanisms would need to be in place to reassure students that no one-year programme is a dead end – instead, it should be a pathway to perhaps several Year 2 and 3 options available as immediate follow-ons or at a later date after a period in work. 

Universities would need to ensure that the first year of study is meaningful and complete as a stand-alone, with an appropriate exit qualification, at the same time as sign-posting the clear progression routes to Years 2 and 3. Recruitment costs would rise as a proportion of fee income, and student support would need to increase at the end of the first year to ensure progression and / or appropriate career guidance. It could fundamentally change the undergraduate culture with a less cohesive cohort and students potentially joining and leaving at different points within degree programmes. 

Every year there are around 100,000 people who apply through UCAS but do not progress to university. Some may have failed to meet the entry requirements for higher education, but many will have achieved adequate Level 3 qualifications but decide not to go through with their application. Some of these potential students could well find a one-year commitment to university education attractive and reap significant benefits compared to those who do not pursue higher education. This is an appropriate pool from which to widen participation and increase technical skill levels in the future workforce.

Even those students who choose not to progress to higher levels after Level 4 or Level 5 stand to benefit significantly. Research by Professor Anna Vignoles and others looked at earnings benefits from Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications (although noting the small data set and a limited range of programmes undertaken):

We find that on average there are earnings benefits from all levels of tertiary education (Level 4, 5, 6 or some combination), relative to leaving education with Level 3 as the highest qualification. Some tertiary qualifications, such as Level 4 qualifications for men and Level 5 qualifications for women, lead to higher early-labour-market earnings on average than completing a degree once we adjust for some basic characteristics of those taking the different routes. 

While the LLE model potentially has much to offer the part-time, mature upskilling and reskilling needs of working people in a fast-evolving technological work environment, there is as yet little known about the potential demand in this area. Using the LLE to create innovative school and college leaver progression options could offer a new way to engage young people in full-time higher education through a less daunting upfront commitment and more flexibility to engage at Levels 4, 5 and 6 at a time and pace of their own choosing. Such options could drive demand for Level 4 and Level 5 technical education and provide a much-needed boost to widening participation in higher education.

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1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    I think the “one step a year” to a degree, is an excellent idea and should start in 2025.

    In addition to the benefits mentioned above, it would improve the flexibility of learning by allowing changes in location of study and could lessen the student accommodation shortage in many cities. Students could possibly study from home in their middle year to save money or take a break in year 2 ( and try out a job) and come back in year 3.

    The idea could also help those students who do not want to commit to the full student loan package of £40k over 3 years but would consider a lower loan.

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