Donelan: lifelong loans will bring ‘historic culture shift’

Minister also tells THE event that access changes are ‘not focusing on high-paid jobs’ but rather on ‘graduate jobs’

November 24, 2021
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021
Source: Phillip Waterman
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021

The recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for “historic, once-in-a-generation” reforms to drive lifelong learning, ushering in “a complete culture shift” for higher education in opening it for the first time to new kinds of students, according to Michelle Donelan.

The higher education minister was speaking at the Times Higher Education THE Campus Live event, where she also said that a “reboot” of the access system trailed before her speech was “not focusing on high-paid jobs” – a phrase twice used by the Department for Education in its press release – but rather on “graduate jobs”.

On the pandemic disrupting the status quo in higher education, Ms Donelan said: “We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact historic reforms that are long overdue.”

That was a reference to the government’s planned lifelong loan entitlement, scheduled for introduction in 2025, allowing adult learners to access loan funding for four years of post-18 education, which could be used to study a single module or build up a full degree over time. Ms Donelan likened its potential impact to that of the NHS on health in post-war Britain.

Lifelong loans would “open up higher education” to new sections of society who have felt that higher education “is out of reach for them” and would thus “usher in a complete culture shift” for the sector, she said.

England would be “the first country in the world” to introduce such a system “at scale”, “putting us in a brilliant position to have an education system and an economy that work hand-in-glove together to produce a highly skilled, highly paid workforce”, Ms Donelan continued.

She added that the “details and scope” of the new lifelong loans “will of course be open to consultation”, which would be “critical”.

“I’m calling today on the entire sector to partner with us to shape, publicise and deliver this once-in-a-generation reform,” Ms Donelan said.

Meanwhile, the access changes would shift the emphasis from “intakes to outcomes” and would incentivise universities to work with schools, helping to deliver “real social mobility” while also ending requirements for “novel-like” access agreements that consume “massive university resource”, Ms Donelan said.

Universities with courses delivering “poor outcomes” for graduates would have to improve dropout rates and “progression to graduate employment” in access agreements with the Office for Students, but it would be “for universities to set their own targets”, the minister said.

Many universities will have reservations about an access and participation regime involving a focus on employment outcomes, particularly those in disadvantaged regions with tough labour markets, or with high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But if using access agreements to bear down on perceived “low-value” courses signals that the government is pulling back from any move to do that by capping student numbers by course, universities might also regard that as a potentially more consensual and nuanced approach than caps.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, has talked about making the shift to a “high-skill, high-wage economy” the government’s priority – which the DfE’s press release on the access changes echoed in saying universities would be “required to set new ambitious targets to support students throughout their time at university by reducing dropout rates and improving progression into high paid, high skilled jobs”.

Taking questions from THE editor John Gill, Ms Donelan said: “I want to be really clear. We’re not actually focusing on high-paid jobs. We’re focusing on graduate outcomes; that means graduate jobs.”

Asked about the government’s much-delayed response to the Augar review of post-18 education, Ms Donelan said: “On Augar, we will be responding shortly. From the outset, what our objectives have always been have been raising quality, making sure that our higher education system is sustainable in the long run, that it provides value for money for the taxpayer and value for money for the student. I think today is really akin to all of the things we have been looking at while responding to Augar.”

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