English higher education needs to start taking lifelong learning seriously

When it launches next year, the lifelong learning entitlement could boost both university finances and social mobility, says Zahir Irani

February 6, 2024
A mature student studying
Source: iStock

Until the later 1990s, the marketing profession was stuck within the traditional, linear business model of segmented channels. Then social media came along. Its open, flexible nature revolutionised mindsets in the industry and allowed marketers to bridge generations and personalise their campaigns. The lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) could do the same for English higher education.

With the countdown to the LLE’s 2025 launch well and truly under way, we in universities need to start treating it as an important opportunity rather than as a distraction that is likely to fail. We need to appreciate that the LLE has the potential to shake up the sector and help both build more financially viable universities and promote social mobility by making higher education a higher-level learning and skills hub that people tap in and out of as needed throughout their lives.

Naturally, there is resistance to an idea that is new and different. Why bother with short courses when learners can be locked into a full three-year commitment via traditional post-school recruitment? In a similar kind of way, Microsoft had been determined to stick with the proprietary computing model, keeping its customers all to itself – until Bill Gates realised that the internet was going to change the rules and rewrote his entire business plan around the Explorer browser.

Given England’s frozen tuition fee levels, the traditional degree model is no longer the guarantee of financial strength and security that it was a decade ago. This is absolutely not the end of bachelor’s degrees, but the sector has to work in ways that are more compatible with the fast-changing skills and knowledge needs of the economy, delivering them when and where they’re needed.

Some universities may have been put off by the nationwide but very limited trial of short courses and the LLE recently run by the Office for Students. Only 125 students signed up for courses (the target was 2,000), of whom just 41 took out a loan. But it is hard to draw many conclusions from an exercise that has been criticised by Rose Stephenson, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, for its poor marketing, lack of clarity about its target audiences and failure to explain to universities what was involved in terms of availability, as well as the value of taking part.

At the same time, the trial did show that the institutions involved planned to continue to work on the offering and, in many cases, to expand it. Employers themselves were supportive and committed to funding upskilling via short courses, meaning that employees would not necessarily need to look for loan support – opening up a new revenue scheme for universities.

There needs to be a big noise around the LLE, making it a standard part of household conversations around careers and training. There was a signal of the government’s commitment in its January announcement that loans will be available for the living costs of students with adult and child dependants for all designated full-time and part-time courses, including any “modules that require in-person attendance”. This is an excellent step forward and an inclusive one.

There is huge potential here, both for those delivering education and the population. The flexibility of the LLE will open up higher education to a much larger pool of people, more able to fit higher study around work and other demands. In itself, the funding system involved will force organisations to create a more modularised and accommodating curriculum framework (similar to how the internet requires a shared, interoperable language). This will involve credit recognition from other organisations to allow accumulation; an ability to move from full-time study to part-time and vice versa; and an approach to allowing flexible start and stop points.

Students will have more opportunities to learn at different stages of their lives, changing or digging further into their specialisms when they need to. Lifelong learning will also broaden out their peer-to-peer professional and personal networks, helping to create a more mobile, flexible workforce able to flex alongside areas of economic growth.

It totally misses the point to see the LLE as a bolt-on to the current model. Institutional leaders need to be thinking about wider implications, where they stand in relation to lifelong learning as a strategic priority and how they will embrace the opportunities, rather than worry about the challenges. They need to be working out its potential as a new income stream, including the details in terms of costs of programmes, modules and credits.

Is the current curriculum framework fit for purpose, and what adaptations are needed to deal with the stop-start nature of learning and the need to move credits from one institution to another? How can the more temporary student experience be managed for the benefit of both sides and be seen as a holistic system? And critically, how can universities – particularly more vocationally focused ones – market lifelong learning to a much wider range of audiences beyond traditional students?

We need to be able to explain the opportunity and funding in a way that makes it sound easy and natural. Further, we need to start changing the mindset of people when it comes to the role of higher education in their lives. So, lots to do before the launch.

Zahir Irani is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford.

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