Lifelong loan restrictions for non-STEM subjects ‘make no sense’

Former Tory minister warns using ELQ rule in government’s planned skills revolution would block careers in key sectors like fashion

June 21, 2021

A Westminster government move to restrict adult learners from using lifelong loans for non-science subjects would block them from “some of our most promising sectors” such as fashion or gaming and “make no sense as policy”, a former Conservative universities minister has warned.

The government’s Post-16 Education and Skills Bill, which will create a new “lifelong learning entitlement”, allowing individuals flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education, including for shorter, modular segments, had its second reading in the House of Lords last week.

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

Former universities minister Lord Johnson wrote in The Times that while lifelong loans would be crucial to reskilling, “the Treasury is blocking the way by insisting on the so-called equivalent or lower qualification rule”.

The ELQ rule previously stopped students accessing loan funding for a second degree if they already had one. It has been eased to a limited extent, allowing students funding for second degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses only.

If the government were to seek to apply ELQ on lifelong loans, it would fit within the wider pattern of concern over “low value” courses and moves to shift universities away from subjects it deems to have lower graduate earnings returns.

“The cost of removing what remains of the ELQ restrictions for non-STEM subjects is trivial when measured in terms of the subsidy in the loan book, especially when compared with the economic value generated by the wider creative industries,” Lord Johnson told Times Higher Education.

“Blocking off paths in life that may pass through some of our most promising sectors”, including fashion, games and music, “makes no sense as a policy”, he added.

He said the idea aired in the government’s Augar review of post-18 education “that creative courses are oversupplied and growing out of control is a notion completely lacking any evidence. They have represented about 7 per cent of provision, before and after the end of number controls.”

Tim Blackman, the Open University vice-chancellor, said that with the right information and guidance, “learners can make the choices that are right for them”.

“As we move towards loans for modular study it makes little sense for a government to decide what is a priority at this level of granularity,” he said.

He added: “While there is a question of where taxpayer subsidy is invested, especially when public finances are under severe pressure, this needs to be looked at in the round. For example, I have argued before that the scale of the UK’s residential system of higher education is very costly and its public subsidy would be better targeted on education rather than student landlords.”

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