English HE bill anticipated with focus on lifelong loans

Government said to be aiming for ‘uncontroversial’ legislation on LLE, with future of plans to limit student entry unclear

January 27, 2023
The Earth Galleries at the National History Museum, London showing escalator travelling into the Earth to show English HE bill anticipated with focus on lifelong loans
Source: Alamy

The Westminster government is tipped to introduce a higher education bill, with ministers said to be seeking “uncontroversial” legislation focused on the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE), but there is less clarity over the future of plans to restrict student entry.

Sector sources said the government might introduce a bill in the coming weeks.

In May 2022, the government said in the Queen’s Speech that it would introduce a higher education bill to implement the LLE in England and, “subject to consultation”, a minimum entry requirement (MER) for individuals to be eligible for student loans, as well as student number controls (SNCs).

After that consultation, the Department for Education was said to favour capping numbers on courses using outcomes measures including the proportion of graduates going into “managerial or professional employment”, and an MER set at two E grades at A level.

But turmoil as the Conservatives ejected Boris Johnson as prime minister also led to the exit from the DfE of Michelle Donelan, the former higher education minister who was fleetingly education secretary, and her adviser Iain Mansfield, the architect of the MER and SNC plans.

Robert Halfon, the current minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, is said to be far less supportive of MER plans.

One source said the indications were that MERs were unlikely to be included in a bill and with the LLE the priority, the aim was for a “relatively uncontroversial bill”. The LLE would allow adults to borrow the equivalent of a four-year student loan over the course of their working lives, including by taking shorter, modular-level courses.

“What I would hope to see from an HE bill passing in this Parliament is legislation that really kick-starts the government’s lifelong loan entitlement,” said Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities.

It was “important the LLE does not get lost, as it could provide a real opportunity for a wider range of learners to reskill and upskill, and reverse the decline we have seen in mature students”, she added.

“Any move to reopen the door to minimum entry requirements or student recruitment limits would be extremely concerning and against modern universities’ core principles of inclusion, aspiration and the power of education to transform lives,” Ms Hewitt added.

On the LLE, which Mr Johnson pledged would be introduced by 2025, legislation would set fee limits for shorter courses and establish eligibility requirements.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, the Conservative former universities minister, said “ministers must grip this policy urgently if it is to be ready for delivery in 2025”.

Ministers must rethink their approach and allow “much greater flexibility in terms of what courses will be eligible for LLE funding”, he argued.

“Learners wanting to access specific skills do not necessarily want or need courses that are simply credit-bearing modules of existing qualifications…The DfE needs to ensure that learners have a much broader choice of courses and credentials – credit-bearing and non-credit-bearing – if the LLE is to fulfil its potential,” Lord Johnson said.

But Sir David Bell, the University of Sunderland vice-chancellor and former DfE permanent secretary, warned that “we legislate far too much in this country”, with there often being “more concern about politics and signalling” – referencing the campus free speech bill – “than there is about legislating for a purpose”.

“So, my hope – probably forlorn – is that the government looks at all its policy objectives and uses legislation as a last, rather than a first, resort,” he added.


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