Lifelong learning reforms may not pay their way, thinktank warns

IFS says adults studying individual modules may be less likely to complete degrees and get highly paid jobs

June 13, 2022
Epsom Surrey, London UK, June 04 2022, Line Of Men And Women Queuing To Withdraw Money From An ATM Cash Point Machine
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Individuals studying separate modules under England’s planned lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) might be less likely to achieve a qualification, meaning the economic aims of the reforms might never be realised, a thinktank has warned.

Under the LLE, scheduled for introduction in 2025, learners would be able to borrow up to four years’ worth of student loans over the course of their working lives, including to study separate modules that could then be “stacked” into qualifications.

While the idea is to allow adults to reskill more flexibly, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warns in a report published on 13 June that as a result, “many students are likely to take much longer to complete their degrees if offered the chance”.

“This is unlikely to be a desirable outcome,” the report says. “The more time elapses between separate modules, the less likely students will be to develop a comprehensive understanding of the material, and the more likely they will be to leave their courses without achieving a qualification.

“From a public finance perspective, longer degree completion times could lead to substantially lower lifetime tax contributions, as graduates will spend a lower share of their working lives in highly skilled jobs.”

Concerns have previously been raised that older students might be less likely to pay back their borrowing, given that they will be in the labour market for a shorter period of time post-qualification and given the uncertainty about the value that employers will place on modular learning.

This has in turn led to concerns that the increased cost of lifelong learning might lead to further limits on university places for school-leavers, with the Westminster government currently consulting on the introduction of minimum entry requirements for student finance, and caps on student numbers.

The IFS report says it remains to be seen “whether the new modular funding system will transform how higher education is delivered in England or whether (as seems more likely) student loans for separate modules will only ever be a niche phenomenon”.

But authors Luke Sibieta, Imran Tahir and Ben Waltmann note that a “strict four-year loan allowance” will in fact be “substantially more restrictive than the current system in a variety of circumstances”. By unifying the further and higher education funding systems, anyone who has studied part-time for a further education qualification, for example, “will effectively be barred from enrolling in a four-year undergraduate degree”. It is also unclear what exemptions will be in place for undergraduate courses that typically last longer than five years, such as medicine, dentistry and architecture, and whether programmes such as foundation courses will be covered.

They also note that the reskilling envisaged under the LLE reforms will be affected by any relaxation of the equivalent and lower qualification (ELQ) rule, which currently bars a student from receiving public loan support for a course at the same level or below an award they already hold.

“There is value in a simple and clear [LLE] entitlement, and some of the underlying changes are very sensible, such as extending full student loans to those in further education and relaxing eligibility rules regarding ELQs,” the report concludes.

“However, there is a risk that creating a simple entitlement will reduce entitlements for more complex courses unless exemptions are introduced, particularly longer courses or those with a foundation year.”

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