‘Fertilise demand’ for lifelong loans in England, says minister

Michelle Donelan tells Tory conference fringe event that lifelong loans offer universities chance to open to ‘swathe’ of new kinds of students

October 5, 2021

England’s planned lifelong learning entitlement will be a transformative “opportunity for universities”, which should work with the government to “fertilise demand” from working adults who would never otherwise consider higher education, according to the universities minister.

Michelle Donelan, given an expanded brief including further education and a seat attending cabinet in the ministerial reshuffle last month, was speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference in Manchester.

With the conference dominated by attempts to define levelling up and how it can be implemented in policy terms, education and skills are “absolutely instrumental in terms of the levelling up agenda”, Ms Donelan told the event, hosted by ConservativeHome in partnership with the MillionPlus group of modern universities.

“I don’t think [universities] are the solution for everybody and I think we need to be quite frank about that,” she said. “However, they are a fundamental part of the recipe of the solution.”

This will be “the government that actually delivers” on the “synergy” between labour market needs and education, she predicted.

In the skills bill, the government is moving to introduce a system of lifelong loans, a lifelong learning entitlement, allowing adult learners to study short courses or build up to a full degree over time.

The government, continued Ms Donelan, was “embarking on a skills revolution and one of the things I’m most excited about is the lifelong learning entitlement…What it will do is quite transformative in terms of our education system; making it more flexible, making it fit for today’s world, so people can do bite-sized chunks – be that in technical education, be that at degree level.

“It will unlock higher education – so it’s an opportunity for universities as well – it will unlock higher education to a whole swathe of the population that would never have thought it was possible for them.”

Ms Donelan also said she wanted a greater focus on outcomes from university courses: “That is what real social mobility is about. Real social mobility is not getting to the door of a further education college or university – it is ensuring that individual carries on throughout that course, completes that course and that course will lead them to where they wanted to go; if that is university, to a graduate job.”

She continued: “If I was asked, ‘What more do I want to do for the sector over the coming years,’ I would say: really embrace LLE. This is a fantastic opportunity; it won’t come round again. We’ve got to get it right. I’m determined to work with the sector…[so] that we really fertilise that demand.”

That may raise questions about whether Conservative ministers, who have heralded the “tearing up” of the former Labour target for 50 per cent of young people in England to enter higher education, are nevertheless willing to countenance expansion of participation via lifelong loans for adult learners.

Ms Donelan also urged the sector to “work with me to continue to focus on those outcomes, also linking with businesses”.

She added: “One of the most important departments in government at the moment is the education department in terms of delivering on that levelling up agenda.”

Following indications the government wants to restrict student numbers at universities via a minimum entry requirement in the forthcoming spending review, Graham Baldwin, the University of Central Lancashire vice-chancellor and MillionPlus vice-chair, told the event: “A country that limits access and aspiration is a country that is going backwards. When we focus on levelling up and doing as much as we can for as many as we can, we need to ensure we keep universities within that focus.”

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, told the event that there were few incentives in the higher education and research funding systems for universities to focus on their local and regional impact. “If levelling up means something, there need to be more incentives for institutions to do things that actually contribute to levelling up,” he said.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

A narrow approach to Lifelong Learning that restricts funding to courses and modules that are Qualification Based and only cover skills for work above level 3, and require loans to be repaid within 5 years will make little difference to "levelling up". Rebranding MBAs should be prevented. If we want to be really radical, University delivered programmes should be excluded. We already have provision for mature students. Ideally the up skilling should take place via locally based, community skills providers. The programme should be flexible enough to include life skills as well as work skills. Many people retiring around 60 may have another 20 plus years of life. They too should be included, with repayment possible after death via life insurance policies. We could then fund skills development in 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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