Skidmore: don’t leave universities out of lifelong learning plans

Former universities minister says there is a danger reforms will focus too narrowly on colleges

February 19, 2021
Chris Skidmore

The Westminster government’s ambitions to revive lifelong learning must not neglect the role of higher education institutions, according to former universities minister Chris Skidmore.

Speaking at the launch of the thinktank ResPublica’s Lifelong Education Commission, which he will chair, Mr Skidmore welcomed plans to give individuals flexible loan funding for four years of post-18 education throughout their life, allowing people to break study into shorter segments.

However, much of the focus to date has been on the role that further education colleges – also the recipients of a £1.8 billion capital fund – can play in delivering lifelong learning.

The Conservative MP for Kingswood said there was “a danger that in the narrow focus of post-18 education being defined as simply reinvestment in only further education alone, we will seek to answer tomorrow’s challenges with yesterday’s solutions”.

While “further education is needed, it should not be the sole focus of the government’s attention, if it wishes to level up skills across the entire UK population”, Mr Skidmore said.

The ambition for adults to be able to reskill and retrain throughout their life must also be seen in higher education, he argued.

Mr Skidmore recommended returning to a system of means-tested grants, because it would encourage those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might be more averse to taking on debt, to access post-18 education.

He also said that the issue of the interest rate on student loans must be looked at. “At 5.6 per cent, even with the taper, it remains out of all proportion with the current [national interest] rate,” he said.

Mr Skidmore said that the option of seeking funding for single modules, which could then be pieced together into a qualification, would also be important.

“The creation of modular-based learning approaches, which will see a shift to the funding of courses, rather than qualifications, has the potential to transform access to learning opportunities,” he said.

“How we finance all post-18 education in the future must also be re-evaluated, if it is to be both sustainable and indeed equitable.”

Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, also speaking at the launch, agreed that leaving “universities out of the central role means this [efforts to rejuvenate lifelong learning] will not be as successful as it could be”.

Already many universities, such as NTU, offer degree apprenticeships and level 4 and 5 qualifications.

“These things are starting to happen but we need more support for them,” Professor Peck said. “If the funding mechanisms can drive demand, universities will step up,” he said.

David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, University of London, agreed that changes to the funding system in higher education were necessary to promote flexible and lifelong learning. The government must put part-time and mature learning among its priorities, he said.

“There are mechanisms, without legislation, by which we could rapidly introduce loans for short courses or modules, and we need to do that now,” according to Professor Latchman, who said that this year Birkbeck had seen a surge in applications from young people who wanted to study and work at the same time. “People need modules, and they need flexibility,” he added.

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