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Which manifesto will unlock the potential of England’s Lifelong Learning Entitlement?

  • 2 April 2024
  • By Tim Blackman
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Tim Blackman, Vice Chancellor of the Open University.

Tony Blair’s commitment that his Labour government would achieve 50 per cent participation in higher education was made in 1999, although the participation rate did not start rising substantially until the coalition government of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ended England’s student number controls in 2013.

More recently, however, the target has been heavily criticised, including Rishi Sunak calling it a ‘false dream’ for young school and college leavers when too many degree courses did not lead to decently paid graduate careers.

The target has often been misrepresented. It was not about school leavers but the 18–30-year-old age group, not about going to university but about higher education, and not about degrees but, again, higher education.

These are important distinctions. The UK’s skills shortages are more extensive among the existing workforce than new entrants; higher education is provided by a wider range of organisations than just universities; and there are more higher education qualifications than just degrees. Further education colleges in particular have as yet unrealised potential to help solve the UK’s higher-level skills and productivity challenges given their locations often outside core cities.

With England’s new Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) due to be implemented from 2025, these distinctions are even more important, not because they emphasise differences but because they represent parts of what should be seen as a single tertiary education system. Like the NHS, this system needs to be there when needed, with no upfront costs preventing access, and with the recognition that a universal system needs to be efficient, focused on need and meeting the highest priorities first.

A new target

The 50 per cent target has already been met. This has not been so much an achievement of planning as something that happened because demand from students and employers in a higher education market led to this level of participation. The result has been higher economic growth than would have occurred otherwise.

In 2017, Nick Hillman suggested a higher education participation rate of 70 per cent for the UK to be economically competitive. This is the kind of ambition needed to increase the proportion of the working-age population with higher education qualifications. The most recent census data show this to be 42%, too low for an economy that needs workers who can absorb, capitalise on and themselves drive the innovation needed by British businesses and public services if the UK is to stay one of the world’s advanced and sustainable economies, with its benefits spread across society.

The problem is that a higher participation rate is very challenging to achieve with a higher education system dominated by residential three and four-year degrees for younger students and a need for cross-subsidy from international students.  

The Office for Budget Responsibility projects public sector net debt rising to just under 300 per cent of GDP by 2067/68, a figure that is almost certainly wrong but illustrates the huge challenge facing the UK with ageing and slow economic growth. Increasing participation in higher education by further increasing public or personal debt does not seem feasible. Students in England already pay for one of the highest levels of funding per student in the world, with the world’s highest student loan debt.

A new target should drive reform

Given that more rather than less higher education is part of the solution to this debt challenge by increasing productivity, how do we square the circle? The country certainly needs more workers qualified at levels 4 and 5, the certificates and diplomas that are shorter than degrees, and this needs to be powered by increasing the level of achievement in schools and colleges at levels 2 and 3. But this should not just be about more higher education for some. It needs to be about different higher education for everyone. Funding more higher education needs a rebalancing and redistribution across the system.

It will take bold politics to do this. It means challenging the length and volume of first degrees across the sector, so the average cost is brought down, and redistributing public subsidy for maintenance loans that pay for the full-time residential model to more support to stay at home and commute, or study part-time or at a distance. This will need some tough discussions with the sector, professional bodies and learned societies. It needs to recognise that a mass higher education system where around half of young students move home for three to four years and add to housing demand is not sustainable.  

In England, the LLE has the potential to drive this reform, but no political party has yet gone beyond welcoming the additional choice that the LLE will enable to setting out a vision for the tertiary sector they want to see. The LLE is billed as a transformation. Although it has some very welcome features, such as scrapping altogether the rule that student loans cannot be used for lower or equivalent levels of qualification, it is not yet transformational and needs to be.   

With resources constrained, much greater participation in higher education can be achieved but only with shorter initial qualifications, and not just for those not selected by universities for their degrees. These shorter qualifications – Higher Technical Qualifications, Certificates and Diplomas in Higher Education and Foundation Degrees – should be the normal way of participating in higher education, designed for starting a professional or technical career and recognising that this will need to be built on over a career in an economy and society where knowledge and skills date quickly. This can be funded from a learner’s remaining loan entitlement, employers or a mix of the two.

Similarly, the LLE can facilitate changes between full-time and part-time study, campus and distance learning, and between institutions, which is a flexibility needed to support the reality of people’s lives as they participate across a lifetime in higher education.

The approach to modules needs to change

One of the government headlines accompanying the announcement of the LLE was the innovation of extending student loans to the study of single modules. Although studying single modules has a part to play in meeting England’s skills needs, the priority for public funding should be qualifications important to the economy and public services, underpinned with grant funding linked to the likely long-term Treasury return from that investment.

The opportunity to study other subjects should of course be available and LLE loans will rightly include qualifications in all subjects given this is a matter of student choice. Loans, however, are only planned to extend to a restricted range of modules directly relevant to narrowly defined occupational standards. Yet it is qualifications that are most relevant to these standards, and to which grant funding should also be targeted to lower their cost for providers and learners. Students wanting to take other subjects should have the option of their LLE loan being available for any module.

At The Open University, we have found that working-age learners are often as likely to enrol on courses in nutrition or child psychology as coding or project management, and this learning is likely to help their productivity. In fact, it should be possible to study any module with your LLE allowance. Many universities and colleges would offer to bundle the credit earned into an award that mixes an occupational qualification with this additional study.

Apprenticeships are not the (only) answer

Finally, the narrative often heard that apprenticeships are the new priority for skills should be put in context. These are largely funded by the apprenticeships levy, a tax paid by large employers that they can recover by funding their employees to undertake apprenticeships. At the current level of the levy, higher and degree apprenticeships can only be a tiny part of higher education participation.

There is also another, currently unmet, purpose that this levy should be fulfilling rather than the LLE, which is a high-quality module or short course study when an employer has a requirement for this kind of upskilling or reskilling, generally for a short-term need.

Both higher and degree apprenticeships and short courses could certainly play a larger part in higher education participation if the apprenticeship levy is increased. There is a case for doing this given the low level of funding that British employers devote to training compared to other advanced economies, reflecting the short-termism that besets British business.

Conclusion

Despite its rather humdrum title, the LLE should be recognised as the engine room that can drive England’s skills revolution across our universities and colleges, building an inclusive, innovative and high-technology economy. It is long overdue. We could start by renaming the LLE to give it the status it should have as the country’s knowledge engine. More importantly, it needs the galvanising effect of a high-profile target. Nick Hillman’s 70 per cent is not a bad starting point. Which manifesto will be first?

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1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    I see the key message to be taken from this article as “…..different higher education for everyone…..”

    But not only different HE, we need different nursery, infant, junior and secondary education.

    This country is getting nowhere and is stuck in the past. Radical change is needed at all ages of education. The most important elements are to identify the natural aptitudes of each individual and nuture what they do best and like best, as quickly as possible, regardless of their natural age in years on earth.

    From the age of 1 onwards, different individuals can be seen as developing at different rates. By age 5 the gaps in attainment are often clearly visible. Individual children are showing different talents and skills, have different interests and preferences. By age 11 the gaps have widended even further. Basing education on “year groups” the assumptions about “class teaching” of the same subjects, to all children, of the same age, at the same time, to the same intensity, as though this is the best way to do it, is patently stupid.

    With modern technology based on mobile phones, screens and electronic devices it is increasingly possible to deliver individual education if our teachers and parents and educators are themselves better trained.

    With advances in AI we will see the brightest kids teaching professors.

    By all means adopt many more shorter courses, delivered locally but focus on letting young people become the best that they can, by doing their best, initially at a wide range of different activities, linked to what they are the most interested in and capable of doing that contribute to a better society.

    Much more nudge, much less teaching in ruts, forcing round pegs into square holes, release individual energy rather than “impose” the current educational cages onto people.

    Structures, grants and loans, incentives and payments need to be linked to what society decides is needed and necessary and can be developed but we need to start from a new way of thinking and a new vision for the future.

    Education is too important to be left to academics and experts.

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