Entry restrictions absent as bill focuses on lifelong learning

Westminster government introduces legislation aimed at making module financing fairer to encourage more flexible learning

February 2, 2023
Source: iStock

Legislation aimed at paving the way for the Westminster government to deliver its planned lifelong loan entitlement from 2025 has been introduced to Parliament – but more controversial plans to restrict student enrolment are conspicuously absent.

The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, which had its first reading on 1 February, seeks to tweak the student finance system to ensure that those taking individual modules at higher education providers are charged proportionately to those taking a full degree course.

It was previously thought that such a bill could also include a minimum entry requirement (MER) for individuals to be eligible for student loans, as well as student number controls (SNCs) – two policies that the government has committed to in the past.

But sector sources told Times Higher Education last month that ministers were instead seeking “uncontroversial” legislation, which has proven to be the case. THE has asked the Department for Education whether MER and SNCs are still part of the government’s long-term plans.

THE Campus resource: Challenges and opportunities of the 60-year curriculum

If enacted, the new bill would introduce a method that places limits on the fees a provider can charge for a single course or module and allow the secretary of state to set maximum chargeable credits per course year.

Robert Halfon, the minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, said it would be “transformational in helping students to climb the education and skills ladder and get the qualifications they need”.

The government said the bill was needed because of fears that the current system – which only sets limits on how much universities or colleges can charge a student in an academic year – disincentivises flexible learning, as someone wishing to take only one module could be charged the same as a full year’s study.

The long-promised LLE will provide adults with funding equivalent to four years of post-18 study (currently worth £37,000), which can be used over their whole working lives.

Mr Halfon said it would prevent students being “confined to just traditional full degree courses” and instead “allow them to build up credits to get both the qualification and training they need for jobs”.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson’s previous administration had committed to ensuring that the LLE was up and running by 2025, and sector leaders had feared that the policy would be delayed or scrapped altogether in the political chaos of recent months.

Signs of movement in this area were therefore broadly welcomed by the sector, although many questions remained over how it would work in practice.

Arti Saraswat, HE senior policy manager for the Association of Colleges, said the bill was an “important first step in making student finance more flexible”.

But, she said, implementing it by 2025 remains “challenging” and “there is still work needed to explain who will be eligible for the lifelong learning entitlement, where they will be able to use it and how those institutions will be regulated.”

The drop in part-time provision at colleges and universities presented a “genuine challenge in rebuilding capacity”, Dr Saraswat said, adding that while the LLE and credit-based student loans were “important technical fixes” they were “not enough on their own”.

Jonathan Michie, chair of the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning, said the bill would not “do anything to reverse the damage that has been done to the provision of adult education and lifelong learning over the past wasted decade and a half of austerity”.

“Funding needs to be provided to enable providers to design and deliver high-quality courses at affordable fees,” he said.


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