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The ambition for the LLE is shackled by its detail

  • 2 November 2023
  • By Helena Vine
  • This blog was kindly authored by Helena Vine, Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).
  • HEPI published a Policy Note earlier this year on the topic of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) – you can read that piece here.

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) provides a tuition fee loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education – £37,000 in today’s fees. From 2025, this loan will be used for full qualifications, and modules of some “job-specific” technical qualifications. From 2027, this will be extended to Level 4 to 6 for both full courses and at a modular level, where the government can be confident of positive student outcomes.

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) presents an opportunity to fulfil cross-party lifelong learning ambitions by enabling learners to access bite-sized chunks of higher education, driving upskilling, reskilling and helping to close skills gaps. If done right, it could be revolutionary. But in its current form, the policy detail shackles the ambition. Left unaddressed, this could squander a unique opportunity to achieve access to lifelong learning for all.

The first shackle is that the LLE requires fundable modules to be drawn from a parent course. This creates a false equivalence between qualifications that follow a modular format (like most undergraduate degrees) and standalone module offerings (often called micro-credentials or short courses). Looking at the indicators of high quality included in our Definition of Quality, each one must be adapted to achieve a successful modular learning experience. Policymakers cannot expect providers to serve up their modular component parts in isolation and deliver the same experience.

The Department for Education’s impact assessment outlines a very optimistic view of the time, cost and resource required to adapt courses to be delivered as standalone modules. It assumes it will take one staff member familiar with a course only three hours to assess its suitability to being offered as standalone modules and then redesign the course accordingly. The redesign feasible in that time is unlikely to deliver the high-quality learning experience modular learners expect and deserve.

The second shackle is the minimum threshold of 30 credits. Demand for modular learning funded by loans is unclear, evidenced by the low numbers partaking in the short courses trial. The 30-credit threshold is higher than many of the modules that currently make up full qualifications, making bundling likely to be the norm rather than the exception. QAA’s previous work on micro-credentials suggest smaller credit values tend to work best in modular learning.

So long as there is a mismatch between the policy ambition and the policy detail, providers are unlikely to spend time and energy delivering provision where the demand and impact are so uncertain. But all is not lost. As QAA’s latest policy paper outlines, a few modest changes could transform the policy impact.

A policy intended to deliver flexible learning must have flexibility baked into it. It should be designed to encourage providers to deliver modular provision where there is learner demand, employer recognition and skills needs. To achieve this, policymakers should remove the requirement for modules to be drawn from parent courses and lower the threshold to 10 credits.

This would enable providers to design bespoke modules in collaboration with employers that directly address skills gaps, are tailored to the local skills and labour landscape and can adapt to emergent needs. A greater employer focus works well in similar initiatives in other countries. The Irish Universities Association’s ‘Micro-creds’ project targets employers as a key audience, helping them address skills gaps at a cohort level, as well as individual upskilling.

Given the centrality of providers to realising the LLE’s policy ambition, further policy detail should harness existing sector expertise and protect institutional autonomy. The Credit Framework for England, a sector-owned reference point curated by QAA, provides a shared framework that providers can adopt and adapt to their own institution. Any future legislation should refer to this definition of credit, so that it continues to be based in academic authority, owned by the sector itself and not susceptible to political direction.

Recognition of prior learning in a diverse sector requires providers’ own expertise, so they should be tasked with developing agreed mechanisms and a shared infrastructure to recognise prior learning and enable credit transfer.

Many lessons can be learned from existing micro-credential and short-course provision across the nations. But modular, funded provision within LLE infrastructure is yet to be tested. Evidence should be gathered on learner demand, the modular learning experience and progression pathways before establishing proportionate and relevant quality metrics. And those metrics should be regularly reviewed as learner motivations and pathways shift over the coming years.

Our lifelong learning policy paper delves further into these issues to consider how the LLE can best deliver a high-quality learning experience. The LLE has the potential to realise lifelong learning policy ambitions and change the landscape of higher education. It’s time to take the policy shackles off so that these ambitions can be realised.

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1 comment

  1. Pete says:

    I am not convinced that a demand-led student loan system is the best funding mechanism for 10-credit microcredentials that would be subject to a fee limit of £770.

    A few of the issues:

    (1) Someone on the median full-time salary of £35,500 would have to repay a £770 student loan in only 10 months. Is it really worth the related administrative costs?

    (2) There would be lots of potential for fraud in a demand-led system built on 10-credit modules that are not part of courses. It is hard enough to prevent in the current system – and there’s a big scandal coming on that with foundation years. Perhaps excluding from maintenance would discourage student fraud but there is still a lot of scope for provider fraud – see the experience with ILAs.

    (3) It is likely that there would be a lot of public money spent on the provision of short courses that do little for earnings potential. How can the government ensure quality and control expenditure? The government’s current plan is for the parent course requirement to facilitate quality regulation without a lot of extra bureaucracy.

    (4) There would be massive scope for employers to shift the cost of specific job training onto their employees. Individuals should only bear the cost of qualifications that will have benefits over their entire careers.

    It is correct that the government needs to find a funding mechanism to support high-quality microcredentials but I am not sure this would be it.

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