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The lifelong learning buffet needs nutritional oversight

Written by: Johnny Rich
Published on: 24 Jan 2022


Source: Alamy (edited)

In a recent speech, the UK’s further and higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, described the government’s planned changes to post-16 education as the greatest political endeavour since the creation of the NHS. This may be an overstatement, but the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) does have game-changing potential. 

The idea is to give everyone roughly the same access to government-backed loans to pay for post-school education or professional development. It is hoped that this will prompt the wave of upskilling and reskilling the UK economy will need to meet the multiple challenges of post-pandemic and post-Brexit recovery, “levelling up”, embracing the Fourth Industrial Age and reaching Net Zero. 

Certainly, access to funding is a major obstacle for many who might otherwise make the career and family sacrifices – albeit temporary – required to undertake learning or training. However, being entitled to plunge oneself into lifelong debt may not be the temptation the government imagines. Providing funding may be necessary to change the game, but not sufficient.

Some of the other challenges are spelled out in the first report of the Lifelong Education Commission (of which I am a proud member). Lifelong learning needs to be less like the set menu offered by the three-year residential degree and more like a finger buffet. Lifelong learners seem more likely to want shorter courses, perhaps returning for further modules at different times in their lives at different institutions, sometimes full time, sometimes alongside a job. Sometimes on campus, sometimes at night school, sometimes online. 

An advantage of the set menu is that it is designed to ensure that the learner enjoys a full and nourishing meal. Traditional degrees move through levels 4 and 5, building to a level 6 qualification. However, a self-directed course of study may contain an over-abundance of level 4 modules. This may suit some learners’ needs, but we also want to nudge students towards incremental learning. For that, we need a credit transfer framework – a system of recognising how much each module contributes to a higher qualification.

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Such frameworks already exist, but they’re a long way off achieving true transferability. Some institutions simply don’t recognise credits gained at others (that would be trading away competitive advantage). But, frequently, the problem is more practical. Universities teaching the same degree might nevertheless tackle different concepts at different points in the course. Rightly, they don’t want a student who’s done preliminary learning elsewhere to be ignorant of something that, on their course, they would have covered in first year.

Solving this is not easy. Education policy is strewn with the corpses of a half-century’s attempts. What’s more, allowing an ever-more piecemeal approach may make it harder, as the bureaucracy involved in granular credit decisions will become exponentially more complex. You might say that if modules can all be worth tiny amounts of credit, each “microcredential” becomes less critical to the integrity of a whole qualification. Yet if the LLE prompts a gold rush of poor-quality mini-courses, they’ll add up to nothing other than a waste of learners’ time and taxpayers’ money. 

Someone needs to be charged with deciding whether courses – long or short, large or small – meet the standard to qualify for LLE funding. There are many candidates: the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, the Office for Students, or perhaps a special new body. Whoever it is should award a credit score as part of the assessment, assume regulatory control of the credit transfer framework and host a database of learners’ completed courses. That way, learners can build a portfolio of certified credentials, with a view to bundling them as a level 6 or even higher qualification.

Bundling will be an important motivator for lifelong learners – particularly as a portfolio is unlikely to have the same portability as a degree when it comes to getting a job, even if it amounts to the same set of skills and knowledge. But bundling should not be routine: the buffet plate may be full, but it may still not be a square meal. As a learner approaches 360 credits (the usual value of a bachelor’s degree), they should be able to opt for a “capstone” module, which connects, completes and consolidates their previous modules. Available only from institutions with degree-awarding powers, these modules should assess prior learning, encourage reflection and support application of the learning.

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But what if the modules are too scattered to be packaged as a degree in any particular subject? That may not bother employers; for most graduate roles, the subject studied is largely irrelevant. I propose that credits could be bundled as a “general degree” – again, with a capstone module to draw the disparate parts into a coherent whole of varied knowledge alongside specific, transferable skills. 

If we’re serious about game-changing lifelong learning, we need to apply Fourth Industrial Age thinking to education. We need to hand over control to individuals to shape the product they want. The government’s role is to ensure the interests of learners and of wider society are protected.

Johnny Rich is chief executive of the Engineering Professors’ Council and the outreach organisation Push. He is also a commissioner on the Lifelong Education Commission.