Lifelong Learning – is it worth the hard yards?

The introduction of a workable approach to lifelong learning has been anticipated by the sector for many years. So, should the sector be rejoicing in the wake of a new bill that promises to increase access and participation for all learners, meet the skills needs of the future, and get people into good jobs? Or should we approach with extreme caution?

A marathon not a sprint

When something is difficult to understand or translate, then we tend to use analogies.  So, forgive my indulgence, but I would liken the proposed Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) system to my favourite past-time: ultra-running.

Unlike your average race, ultra-running covers significant distances over time, varied terrain, and changeable weather conditions; meticulous preparation must be done beforehand. Pre-requisite ability to participate is evaluated and a range of other intricacies must be considered: arming yourself with the right equipment, training both physically and mentally, and allocating enough time to carry this out. Is it worth it?

I think you can see where I’m going with this. And I’d have to say that I believe it will be.

Universities are race-ready

As a member of the University Alliance and an anchor institution in the Tees Valley, Teesside University has a strong track record of collaboration with local stakeholders. Together we ensure the region has the skills capital and currency to support the evolving workforce.

The impact that technology has had on education over the years has been nothing short of extraordinary, and the years ahead will further transform the learning and teaching landscape.

Where ours and many other institutions are concerned, the preparations have been made to take on the LLE. Educators, employers, and governments need to come together to respond to the challenges ahead in ensuring people have the right skills to succeed.

Before entering an ultra-race, I have to be sure I have everything I need to complete the race. I know I will struggle at certain points and I am usually pretty sure I will finish (but not always in good time). I could apply similar principals to the implementation of the LLE.

Still some potholes in the road

While not suggesting that the proposal is poorly drafted, I would like to see more consideration given to the challenges that have been raised by the sector around how this will work in practice. The issues raised are significant; crossing our collective fingers and hoping for the best is unlikely to work here. Further clarity on how the policy will be supported in practice is urgently required if institutions are to make it successful.

One of the principal outputs of the LLE is said to be an increase in access and participation – a sentiment not many in the sector would oppose. In theory, if it is simply cost that’s deterring the swathes of mid-late career employees who are looking to retrain or upskill then this should be a no-brainer. However, the recent pilot showed no such shift in behaviour, with only 33 applications for funding as part of this revolutionary model. So where is the demand?

Introducing a new product means targeted campaigns directed at the right people, but the specific needs of the market appear to have been missed. The UK student profile now extends beyond the traditional 18-year-old school or college leaver to include mature, part-time, post-graduate and others – so as the model develops, we need to consider the bespoke needs of each segment.

In limiting the pilot to a meagre scope of subjects, little or no promotion or guidance on how it works and offering what seems to already exist in larger courses with timing, location and delivery methods already fixed, it seems destined to fail from the beginning.

Universities must take the lead

Institutions will need to take the lead on ensuring the lifelong learning model is fit for purpose and market-led but will need government support in bringing this to life as a viable option for learners, particularly around the core building blocks, such as credit transfer, admissions, student choice, and student outcomes.

Current arrangements, particularly around Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) are complicated and cumbersome, and need to evolve if the LLE is to work in the way proposed. Not to mention how credits could and should be transferred between vastly different institutions. The sector has a rich history of proffering workable solutions to complex issues, and now is one of those crucial times where early engagement could help steer a more favourable path through the quagmire.

The LLE, on the face of it, captures everything Alliance universities are good at: increasing access and participation amongst disadvantaged groups; addressing regional and national skills needs to boost economic growth; and delivering the skills and knowledge required for the jobs of the future.

Technology joins the race

In 2019, I launched the Future-Facing Learning Framework at Teesside University, to work on addressing the skills needs of the future, embracing digital technologies and focus on core skills that would be transferable across multiple careers. The framework recognised the changing pace of technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the impact this would have on future industries.

Developing key digital partnerships with companies like Microsoft, Apple and Adobe, we equipped our students with iPads and a digital toolkit, and encouraged them to innovate, inquire, test boundaries and challenge the norm. As well as preparing them for a world revolutionised through technology, they are also acquiring the skillset for jobs that don’t even exist yet.

We are now considering how effective this would be in a 30-credit module rather than a holistic approach to student life, as well as how it might fit with models in other institutions. But, adapting to change is part of what we teach and so we will continue to improve in line with our students’ needs, however complex they become.

Implementation: the route to the finish line

As a forward-thinking, digitally enabled University, with access and participation part of our mission, we are already driving lifelong learning across our student and staff body, our partners and communities. We welcome the current spotlight on this key policy area, but like many others, fear the complexity of implementation may sabotage the true value of lifelong learning.

I do believe the sector-wide adoption of a shared system around lifelong learning could be transformational for learning and teaching. I encourage collaborative discourse to address and resolve the operational challenges to make this a reality for more people across the UK.

And so I find myself, not for the first time this year, at the start line visualising the course ahead – optimistic that with the right application, it will be worth the hard yards.

Further reading