English funding reforms demand ‘truly flexible skills system’

Lifelong Education Commission says ministers should explore how to ‘stack’ microcredentials and drop ELQ rule

October 3, 2021
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The awarding and recognition of credit on post-secondary courses will need major reform if the Westminster government’s plan for a “lifelong learning entitlement” is to be a success, a report says.

Under the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, everyone in England will have access to flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education, allowing people to break study into shorter, module-level segments.

However, the first report of the thinktank ResPublica’s Lifelong Education Commission, chaired by former universities minister Chris Skidmore, warns that at present “there is no standardised way of building up credit across different institutions, with higher education institutions all making separate decisions about what to accept”.

The report says that a “truly flexible skills system will need to allow people to build up learning over time through different modes and levels of participation that best suit the needs of the individual”.

As such, all post-school courses “will need to be modular and credit-bearing to enable learners to accumulate and potentially transfer credit between institutions and to build up qualifications over time”.

The report, published after a series of evidence hearings, says that the government will need to “build on the Quality Assurance Agency’s existing credit framework and regional consortia to enable the transfer and accumulation of credit for higher learning”.

It says that the smallest units of study, known as microcredentials, “could be a viable supplement to conventional qualifications, providing a way for individuals to ‘stack’ learning in flexible ways that can lead to a qualification over time”.

However, the report warns that there are “practical design constraints in stacking very small units into coherent larger ones”.

“Government needs to clarify what size of credit will define a module, which the loan entitlement will fund. This will involve unbundling existing qualifications, at Levels 4 to 6, into smaller, clearly defined elements ranging from 30 to 60 credits to form standalone courses that can be assembled into full qualifications at Levels 4, 5 and 6. But it should also provide a way to stack up microcredentials, typically between 10-15 credits, into larger units of learning,” the report says.

The report adds that ensuring “that both employees and employers trust in the value of new modules of learning will be a key policy challenge”.

As such, “explicit input or support from employers in curriculum design, development or delivery will therefore be crucial to the success of this pathway and the adoption of lifelong learning at scale. There is, however, a balance to be struck here in terms of how national and local priorities are aligned, what businesses need, and what employees may want to learn.”

Elsewhere, the report echoes calls to stop the equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) rule being used to limit access to lifelong loans to allow people who already have degrees to access funding for retraining. Under the proposed legislation, the ELQ rule would apply to students pursuing non-science subjects.

The report, which is being launched at the Conservative party conference on 4 October, adds that ministers should consider introducing maintenance support for students studying flexibly to encourage uptake, and that there is a “strong case for strengthening HE-FE partnerships to provide integrated pathways to higher-level skills”.

Mr Skidmore said that rapid reform was needed to improve the life chances of all UK adults.

“If there is one policy to deliver ‘levelling up’, it is adult learning and skills,” he said. “Acquiring new skills is something we all do throughout our lives. Yet the formal process for acquiring them is incredibly constrained.

“There are too few opportunities to return to learning for those who have left it. And those willing to retrain or reskill can barely see the wood for the trees; the pathways are so complex.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Life long learning is doomed to fail if it is QB - Qualifications Based and not sufficiently flexible. Over 50% of the population are turned off from current learning opportunities because they do not like what is "taught" or the way they are taught. They would rather be entertained than taught. Over 50% (not necessarily the same 50%) would rather have leisure time than study time and would rather pursue hobbies, spend time with their families or do nothing, than improve their work skills. Life is more than work and not everything has to be minutely measured or even measured and given a value for comparative purposes at all . Self improvement, self development, self idealisation, self satisfaction and happiness should not and cannot be determined by administrators or academics seeking to "stack" one qualification on top of another. For those people who want qualifications, let them have them but let's not spend too much time or public money on designing them. Chris Skidmore should spend more time in giving the non university 50% the funds allocated for them under the life long learning initiative to do what they have chosen to do and improve their lives and happiness, spending time in the way they want. Let's fund, cookery, art, painting, DIY, singing, amateur dramatics, music playing and hearing, dancing, exercise, sport, photography, card playing, playing games, reading, knitting and sewing, walking, watching, thinking, resting, caring, mentoring, baby sitting, supporting others through charity work, spending time on political activity, volunteering, star gazing, etc and etc. Set the people free to follow their legal passions and dreams and pastimes and discover what they are good at and enjoy. There is a lot of value in being happy but it is not easy to measure or monetise. The purpose of life is not working but living life to the full. Perhaps we should support life long living /loving as well as learning?

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