Since the government consultation response to the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) was published in March this year, the higher education sector has had a chance to let the news sink in. Now it’s time to reflect on what the next steps might be.
The introduction of the LLE has been long anticipated and was originally proposed as one of the outcomes of the ‘Post 18 review of education and funding: independent panel report’ chaired by Philip Augur (The Augur Review) in 2019.
My counterpart at Teesside University was correct to liken the LLE to ultra running in a recent blog post; the Augur review and its recommendations have had remarkable resilience, surviving seven different Ministers of State for Education, and now in 2023 we are barely over the starting line.
The LLE represents a significant set of changes to post-18 funding for FE and HE, focusing as it does on enabling lifelong learning through flexible funding mechanisms. Eligible learners (i.e. home-fee status students under 60) will have access to funding for four years of post-18 education (£37k in today’s fee limits) and be able to “stack” modules on a pathway to a full qualification.
The University Alliance response to proposals has been enthusiastic overall, calling it:
“a historic opportunity to rethink who post-18 education is for and how it can be experienced… [which] if successful… will enhance social mobility and opportunity, support the levelling up agenda and ensure that employers and the economy are supported by a skilled workforce that is fit for the future”.
The government intends to introduce the LLE for all level 4, 5 and 6 courses from the start of the 2025/26 academic year, and from 2027, allow modular funding for HE provision. It is this latter aspect of the proposals that has sparked greater debate, potentially providing new flexibility for students, universities and employers.
Whilst the complexities of a new funding system will doubtless cause an unmeasurable mountain of work for university administrators, the impact on the 50% of school and college leavers who complete a ‘traditional’ degree is likely to be small.
For the remainder who choose alternative part-time or periodic routes, there is the potential for this new framework to be life-changing. Access to modular funding could reinvigorate part-time provision, drawing underrepresented groups more easily into affordable tertiary study.
As a group of universities with expertise in skills-based education, it should represent an opportunity for Alliance institutions to build on our reputation for supporting a diverse student body, and meeting employers’ needs. However, it is not yet clear how the modular provision will work, nor how universities’ performance will be measured.
The Office for Students has indicated that it will consult with the sector about developing student outcome measures this summer.
A number of challenges lie directly ahead of us, but it’s best for us to just ‘get on with it’, regardless of the finer details of the new framework.
Like many government policies in HE, the information we will need for informed decision-making will likely come a bit too late. If we don’t act, we could be forced into an ungainly sprint to the finish line, limiting the potential for a positive impact on participation in HE – so it’s better to grapple with the set of constrained choices we have available now.
To figure out how to best engage with modular funding, I would propose:
- Working with employers locally and regionally to identify gaps
Using existing relationships with employers and other sectors, as well as LEPs and LSIPs, we can understand the gaps between full-time university programmes and apprenticeships, which will help define or refine programmes where modular study will be valued and popular.
- Testing the resilience of our systems and processes for this group of students
The modular system will test our established approaches to the student journey.
- Working out how and to whom we need to communicate our new offer
If we as universities can individually and collectively communicate what is available as a result of the LLE and demonstrate or stimulate demand, then we can find a way of making this an important aspect of our portfolios.
- Understanding employer priorities of flexibility and inclusion
We can use learning from our experiences of delivering apprenticeship provision to do this.
- Talking to potential students
To make modular provision work for potential students, we need to understand how we can structure courses in a way that will fit round their work and other commitments, and ensure modules make sense on their own as well as part of a parent qualification.
- Rethinking student experience
We will need to ensure that that our academic support, personal tutoring and wellbeing structures and services make sense in this context. We must build a good part-time or intermittent student experience that helps students build networks and opportunities that will accelerate their progress into or further on in employment.
While it’s too early to conclude whether the LLE is the ‘radical shift’ in the tertiary education system that the initial consultation claims it to be, the decisions that learners, universities and employers make now will determine its potential.
We could choose to opt out, of course, but that’s not a likely decision for a group of universities whose reputations are built on powering business and growth…