Ex-minister aims to block subject limit on English lifelong loans

Tory peer Lord Johnson’s amendment to skills bill intended to stop ministers using ELQ rule or number caps in lifelong loans

June 25, 2021

Former Conservative universities minister Lord Johnson aims to amend government legislation to block any move by ministers to restrict adult learners from using lifelong loans to study non-science subjects, or to cap the number of students using the loans.

The Tory peer has tabled an amendment to the Post-16 Education and Skills Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, which would prevent the equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) rule being used to limit access to lifelong loans.

In the existing undergraduate and postgraduate loans system, the ELQ rule prevents students from accessing loan funding for a second degree in a non-science subject, if they already have a degree.

Lord Johnson has previously warned that the Treasury was “insisting” on using the ELQ rule in the lifelong loans the government will create via the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, a move he said would block students from “some of our most promising sectors” such as fashion or gaming and “make no sense as policy”.

Lord Johnson told Times Higher Education that his amendment “will rule out attempts to water down the promised ‘rocket fuel’ of the skills revolution by limiting use of the lifelong learning allowance to a narrow range of STEM courses”.

The amendment aims to ensure that lifelong loans are available to those who wish to pursue a qualification at a lower level than one they already hold, in any subject.

Many supporters of lifelong loans argue that getting rid of the ELQ rule will be crucial if the loans are to achieve the goal of helping people reskill or upskill over the course of their careers.

As the Treasury seeks to reduce spending post-pandemic, it is seeking savings in the higher education budget at undergraduate level – potentially via limiting student numbers, or introducing minimum entry requirements – and is thought to be concerned about the potential level of spending on new lifelong loans.

Lord Johnson’s amendment would insert a clause in the bill stating that the lifelong learning entitlement was available to “any student regardless of prior qualification”, of “subject being studied”, of “intensity of study” and of “restrictions on student numbers”, except for medical, dental and other high-cost subjects routinely capped.

To the alarm of many peers, the government has launched the skills legislation with almost no detail on the proposed lifelong loans, saying only that key elements such as eligibility rules will be added by the time the bill reaches committee stage.

The creation of lifelong loans, billed as being introduced from 2025, was originally announced by prime minister Boris Johnson, Lord Johnson’s brother. The prime minister has described the skills bill and lifelong loans as “the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all”.


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