Sector leaders doubtful of 2025 lifelong loan entitlement launch

After government reaffirms LLE support, post-18 education review chair remains ‘apprehensive’ while OU v-c sees ‘big design challenges’

November 25, 2022

The former head of a government post-18 education review is “apprehensive” about the future of England’s lifelong loan entitlement but encouraged by the appointment of a “great brain” to oversee implementation, while the Open University’s vice-chancellor sees “big design challenges” to overcome.

The Westminster government’s recent Autumn Statement announced that Sir Michael Barber, the former Office for Students chair who set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit under Tony Blair, had been appointed as adviser to the government on implementation of skills reforms, including the LLE, which it reiterated would be introduced by 2025.

A plan for the LLE was first announced by Boris Johnson in 2020, since when there has been limited progress. After two changes in government and the new Sunak government looking to plug a fiscal hole in part caused by the Truss government’s disastrous unfunded tax and spending plans, the future of the LLE had come under question, but the Autumn Statement offered some renewed backing.

Sir Philip Augar, the former head of the post-18 education review set by Theresa May as prime minister, which recommended a lifelong learning system, told an online event it was “critical that all parties – the government, employers, institutions, employees, local authorities – step up to the plate here” on the LLE.

“This is not going to happen unless there’s vigorous enthusiasm for it,” he told the event, hosted by the ResPublica thinktank’s Lifelong Education Commission.

Those groups would need to work together to ensure the LLE “offer” is “explained very clearly to learners”, he added.

Sir Philip continued: “There’s a load to be done here and we are still in the early stages. I’m apprehensive that while all of this is being discussed we somehow lose some momentum.”

The appointment of Sir Michael was “one of the most encouraging things” about the Autumn Statement, he added.

“There does need to be a great brain in there pulling all this together,” Sir Philip went on.

“If we don’t do that, it will all just dribble away and roll down the hill again and there will be a disappointing uptake in lifelong learning.”

On the timescale, he said: “That looks demanding to me to get a full rollout by 2025.”

He added: “It probably would be acceptable if we could get a very well designed, user friendly, career relevant, modularised, transferable, lifelong learning entitlement in a pilot basis by September 2025. I think that’s more realistic now, as time has passed.”

Meanwhile, Tim Blackman, the Open University vice-chancellor, said the LLE “has the potential to underpin a higher education sector fit for the 21st century”, but that there are “still big design challenges to overcome”.

These included whether the LLE will include “fair and realistic maintenance support”, or “create an even more complicated system with different types of eligibility and costly over-regulation”.

“But the biggest danger”, he said, “is that the same could happen again that happened after the trebling of fees in 2012, which discouraged adult learners from part-time study, causing a 60 per cent decline over the past decade.

“The UK government is on record for wanting to support flexible study but there is nothing that I can see yet in the LLE proposals that will actually incentivise both students and providers to create more flexible opportunities to study what students need rather than just what institutions provide, which is dominated by the full-time degree.”

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and former senior civil servant responsible for higher education, said while it was “good news that the government remains committed to the LLE”, with a new prime minister, chancellor and Department for Education ministers, “I’d be surprised if government knew yet exactly what LLE they wanted to implement and what it was likely to cost”.

“So all that suggests even more delay and the chances of implementing anything other than LLE pilots from 2025 look vanishingly small,” he added.

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