V-cs unconvinced as lifelong learning entitlement progresses

As legislation driving rebadged lifelong learning entitlement passes, sector leaders caution that mature learners’ aversion to debt means it cannot bring ‘transformation’ ministers foresee

September 26, 2023
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Sector leaders have cautioned ministers that renaming England’s lifelong learning entitlement will not address looming barriers for older learners, with a danger of repeating past mistakes that choked off demand from part-time students.

As the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fees Limits) Act gained royal assent this month, the Westminster government changed the name of the policy’s key programme from the lifelong loan entitlement to the lifelong learning entitlement, which might be seen as a cosmetic acknowledgement of one of the key sector fears about the LLE, that learning funded solely via loans and “debt” deters older learners.

The LLE, scheduled for introduction in 2025, will provide students with access to up to four years’ worth of loan funding on a flexible basis, so learners can take individual modules over the course of their working lives.

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Tim Blackman, the Open University vice-chancellor, described the name change as a “helpful tweak”, but added that there was “no doubt that the students most targeted by the LLE, those who need to upskill or reskill later in their working lives, will be less willing to take on a loan than young students”.

“Just as we saw a collapse in part-time learning that was completely unintended following the 2012 fee rise, there is a danger that the LLE has not yet been thought through to ensure that it really does enable more flexible participation in higher education,” he said.

Graham Galbraith, the University of Portsmouth vice-chancellor, backed the idea of the LLE, but said he was worried that “the people who we really want to reach…will be put off by taking on a loan. I am concerned that there is not sufficient demand, and that universities may have to devote significant resources to cater for a demand that may never emerge.”

During higher education minister Robert Halfon’s appearance at the recent Universities UK conference, Katie Normington, the De Montfort University vice-chancellor, told the minister that DMU had hosted an LLE pilot and “we didn’t get any students taking that – we got zero in that cohort”; while it has about 600 students on apprenticeships, against 34,440 on degree courses.

She added: “While I share the enthusiasm for lots of different routes for people to get qualifications…it seems to me that a sense of where those pots fit and what’s actually practical is something that perhaps needs a little bit of thinking.”

Sir David Bell, the University of Sunderland vice-chancellor and former Department for Education permanent secretary, said there was “much to do to inform potential users of the benefits of the LLE”. He also cautioned about “some of the potential complexities of making the system work efficiently and effectively, both for individuals…as well as the institutions who will be providing free-standing modules”.

Gordon McKenzie, the GuildHE chief executive, said he backed the idea of the LLE, but “never thought it was going to be transformative in the way ministers claim” as it was not “sufficient to transform demand”.

He argued that “older students are more debt averse – as we learned from the 2012 changes – and the new student loan terms make that debt last longer and require you to start paying back sooner”, while the LLE also “does nothing for the employer side of demand”.

To address that last issue, Mr McKenzie said the government should “broaden the scope of the apprenticeship levy” so it could also pay for, or contribute alongside LLE funding, to Level 4 or Level 5 qualifications being emphasised by ministers. That would avoid the “absurd position” of students paying nothing on the degree apprenticeship route to a technical, work-focused qualification, whereas gaining such a qualification via the LLE would “incur a 40-year debt”.



Print headline: LLE name change ‘doesn’t remove likely barriers to older learners’

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