English lifetime learning plan: call for grants and ELQ easing

Experts welcome Boris Johnson’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee, but call for more details and further progress on obstacles to part-time study

October 2, 2020

Experts have welcomed the UK prime minister’s plan for flexible lifetime loans in England to support adult and part-time education, but urged the government to reintroduce grants and ensure funding is available to people already holding degrees to boost post-pandemic retraining.

On 29 September, Boris Johnson pledged to create a Lifetime Skills Guarantee giving individuals flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education, allowing people to break study into shorter segments.

Mr Johnson’s plan – a success for lifelong learning fund advocate Baroness Wolf, now an adviser in the Number 10 Policy Unit – will give further education students the same access to funding as higher education students, which he said would end “the bias that propels young people into universities and away from technical education”. Nevertheless, it could boost adult and part-time study in universities.

There are suggestions that the new loans will be a separate “product” to existing higher education loans.

Asked for details on terms and eligibility for the new loans, a Department for Education spokeswoman said that these would be set out in the forthcoming further education White Paper.

Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of The Open University, said that he was “very much” in support of the new plan “in principle”, but “there needs to be parity of support between academic and technical routes through higher education in England, and we need to reverse the calamitous policies inflicted on part-time study in 2012”, when fees were trebled.

“That means resetting the balance between grants and…loans,” he added.

Professor Blackman highlighted that the Welsh government’s funding reforms have offered part-time students equivalent support to full-time counterparts, including sizeable maintenance grants, leading to an increase in part-time student numbers. By contrast, maintenance grants have been replaced with loans in England.

“In England, we continue to move in the wrong direction, with cuts to the part-time student premium amounting to nearly 20 per cent over the past three years, and distance learning students still not eligible for maintenance loans, which we know is preventing many students taking up part-time study,” said Professor Blackman.

Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London and the UCL Institute of Education, and author of several major research reports on part-time study, said of the announcement: “This is what lots of people, including myself, have been arguing for; that we need greater flexibility in the part-time system, and in relation to funding.”

Professor Callender highlighted that present loan eligibility requirements mean students must be studying for a full qualification; cannot access funding for a course that is an equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) to one they already have; and must be studying at 25 per cent or more of full-time course intensity.

She continued: “My question is, will all the current restrictions on eligibility for part-time students be dropped? If they do that, I would have thought that would help take-up of student loans.”

Professor Blackman called for the ELQ rule to be lifted on the new loans, allowing those with existing degrees to retrain. “There is no clarity on this yet, but there needs to be,” he said.

Professor Callender said lifting the ELQ rule would be particularly important “given the level of unemployment now”.

She also said that her research suggests older part-time students were more averse to borrowing, raising the question of whether they will “have an appetite to take on debt” if the new system is solely loans-financed.

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and a former civil servant responsible for higher education policy, said this issue means “more loan products are not the total answer and some greater direct subsidy of part-time study is needed”.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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