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What could the higher education short course trial mean for the Lifelong Learning Entitlement?

  • 26 January 2024
  • By Rose Stephenson
  • This HEPI blog was authored by Rose Stephenson, Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI.

Opportunities for lifelong learning are an essential part of a happy, productive and educated society. In fact, the Lancet Public Health journal has published a report stating that an adult’s risk of mortality drops by two per cent for every year they spend in full-time education. Therefore, a new policy – the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) – which provides access to loans for a more flexible approach to higher education, should be welcome. However, there are some bumps in the road in the preparatory work for the roll-out of the LLE.

In 2021, the Office for Students (OfS) launched the higher education short course trial. The aims of the trial were:

  1. To test how higher education providers would develop short courses that would allow students to upskill and/or progress to full higher qualification.
  2. Assess the demand for short courses.
  3. Test the impact of the availability of loans on short-course participation.
  4. Provide a better understanding of short courses ahead of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) planned for 2025.

The plan:

  • 22 providers would develop 100 new courses and over 2000 students would participate in these during 2022/23.

The reality:

  • 22 providers developed between them 96 new courses.
  • However, only 10 providers launched short courses – 17 courses in total – with 125 student enrolments.
  • 41 of these students took out the student loan offered to access the course.

The trial has been evaluated by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) for the OfS, and you can access the full report here.

What did we learn about the demand for short courses?

First, it is difficult to learn much from a nationwide trial that only involved 125 students. It is particularly difficult to learn much about the student loans offer when only 41 students took out a loan. Any lessons from this cohort should therefore be taken with a bucketful of salt.

Secondly, perhaps the more important lesson here is why there was such a small uptake of the courses offered.

Between the short course trial and the LLE discussions, there seems to be a lack of clarity on who the target audiences should be:

  • Adults who have not engaged in higher education so far, and may prefer a more flexible approach to study to fit with additional responsibilities in later life?
  • Employers, who want to upskill their current or potential employees?
  • Previous graduates who want to broaden their skill set or knowledge base?
  • Or a combination of the above?

In addition to the lack of clarity on the target audience, marketing of the short courses was hampered by the following:

  • There has been no communication campaign to educate the public on the availability and value of short courses.
  • There is no credit transfer mechanism in place for these short courses, making it difficult for providers to give added value to the modules through ‘stackability’ (where multiple modules can be stacked together to form a full qualification).
  • The student loan system for short courses was brand new, and not fully tested, with students finding the process cumbersome and time-consuming in the context of a short course application.

What did we learn from institutions?

There were unforeseen challenges in content development. Developing 30-credit courses wasn’t as simple as cutting a module from an existing degree. Developers were working with employers to support their business needs, and gaining approval for courses outside of the traditional full qualification model was challenging. Material needed to be adjusted to be appropriate for Level 4 or 5 courses. The report outlines that ‘some content had to be modernised to be credible with employers’ suggesting that working with employers during curriculum development and review on an ongoing basis may be valuable, and that there may be a tension between the immediate needs of employers and the arguably more rounded benefits higher education can bring.

There were also marketing challenges for institutions. Not all the institutions had predicted the cost and effort needed to promote these courses to cohorts of students that were new to them. However, almost all the providers expect to continue (and in some cases expand) their course offer in the future. It will be worth monitoring this to see the extent to which this does occur, and the related enrolment rate.

Given the financial constraints facing higher education providers, if policymakers are keen to make the LLE a success, they will need to consider how institutions can be incentivised to run courses with higher associated costs versus income. 

What did we learn from the employers?

Employers were positive about the potential for short courses to upskill learners.

Concerns have been raised in relation to the LLE and Continuing Professional Development (CPD). These concerns focus on the issue of individuals paying for their own CPD, rather than this being covered by their employer – particularly if the modules become smaller than 30 credits. However, the employers involved in the trial were clear that where an employer is considering a short course to upskill its staff, the employer would be the one funding the course. Employers expected to be able to do this via a mechanism like the apprenticeship levy. (Labour have announced that they are considering an ‘apprenticeship and skills levy’, should they come into power.) Whether or not such a mechanism becomes policy, there is an additional income stream for universities in offering short courses based on employer need.

What did we learn from the (125) students?

Student indicated a desire for greater flexibility. Participants sought even shorter courses, with some questioning whether 13 weeks was a ‘short course’. Almost all the students were already working full time, therefore requiring flexibility to fit around their working lives.

What does the short course trial teach us about the LLE?

We are left with a chicken-and-egg scenario. To really test whether there is a demand for either standalone or stackable higher education modules at scale, the Department for Education would need to:

  1. Invest millions of pounds to run ongoing communication campaigns on what short courses are.
  2. Invest millions of pounds to build, test and launch a credit transfer mechanism (remember that the LLE only applies to England, so quite how cross-devolved nation credit transfer would work is still a mystery)
  3. Invest millions of pounds in reforming the student loans system, so students can access tuition fee and maintenance loans on a 30-credit module basis.

Without these three pieces of infrastructure in place, it is difficult to determine true demand. Without clear demand, it may be difficult to convince purse holders to invest the resource needed to test the LLE’s true potential.

I asked Stephan Fortier of Instructure, a leading edtech company and HEPI partner, on his thoughts on the short course trial. Stephan said:

Despite the small sample size, we mustn’t ignore the fact that most (80 per cent) of learners cited career prospects as their main motivation for pursuing their courses, which gives confidence that the spirit of the programme resonates. It’s also clear that with the right marketing of courses and proper funding for course development, institutions will have the opportunity to work closely with employers and ensure they’re providing outstanding but flexible learner experiences. The findings also echo what we hear when we speak with universities – that there is a need for more flexible systems and turnkey solutions, supporting lifelong learning. 

Flexibility is a key driver to participation, and that flexibility (for both students and employers) needs to go beyond the ‘minimum 30-credit modules including in-person study’ model in the current LLE framing. (The argument for increased flexibility in the LLE is discussed in detail in my HEPI Policy note: Does the Lifelong Loan Entitlement meet its own Objectives?).

Finally – unintended consequences. The first LLE courses (to include ‘job specific’ technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5) could be funded through the modular LLE system from 2025. This will be followed in 2027 by modular student finance being extended to Levels 4 to 6 where the government can be confident of ‘positive student outcomes’. There is a risk that if a fully developed, tested, and implemented credit transfer mechanism is not in place in the next three years (or the next 20 months for Higher Technical Qualifications) then students may be able to take out funding to study individual modules, without being able to stack those modules together. And what would be the point of reforming the student loans system to a modular approach, if the credit transfer mechanism isn’t in place?

Ambitions to encourage lifelong learning are well placed for educational and economic reasons – as well as the impact this brings to personal development, wellbeing and social mobility. However, if, as Michelle Donelan announced in her role as Higher Education Minister in 2021, the impact of the LLE will be similar to the creation of the NHS on health in post-war Britain, then some serious focus needs to be given to this policy, particularly in terms of the on-the-ground implementation.  

Instructure, makers of Canvas Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), is a leading edtech company that offers a full suite of tools to support all levels of learning. The Instructure Learning Platform makes learning more personal and student success more equitable by delivering the solutions you need to support, enrich, and connect every aspect of teaching and learning. The Instructure Learning Platform includes Canvas VLE, video engagement with Canvas Studio, a branded course catalogue system by Canvas Catalog, digital badging with Canvas Credentials, and a technology adoption tool with Impact by Instructure.

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1 comment

  1. Those three tasks for DfE are interesting.

    DfE know quite a bit about running communication plans – as they’ve broadened recruitment to teacher training they’ve spent a lot of money on advertising that. I’m not sure that’s been an unqualified success (given the missed targets).

    DfE should leave the credit framework alone. England has one, it’s owned by the sector, it’s not compulsory, but you could make joining the 2025 LLE version dependent on using it.

    It’s the 2027 LLE version that’s the big problem. Funding courses with a termly fee is a system that pre-dates the SLC. Moving to a credit-based funding model is a huge undertaking which will require a massive effort. There is no detail on how that will actually work. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that will happen.

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