Just 125 students out of an expected 2,400 enrolled onto the government’s higher education short course trial – raising questions about demand for the flagship lifelong learning entitlement.
The “shocking” figures were revealed today by HE regulator the Office for Students as it published an independent evaluation report for the £2 million pilot.
Delivery of the scheme began in 2022/23 with 21 universities and one college – Weston College – handed a slice of the funding to develop 96 higher education courses shorter than traditional degrees at levels 4 to 6.
But just 17 of those courses at 10 providers were actually launched with student intakes, with a total of 125 enrolments – a “long way short of the more than 2,400 enrolments anticipated in project proposals”, as stated by the evaluation report.
The report said a “distinct aim” of the programme was to test a new student finance product, which provided funding for tuition fees up to a level of £2,310 for a 30 credit course and £3,080 for a 40 credit course.
But data shared by providers suggested half of all enrolled students – 62 – funded their participation individually, with the remainder attending on a free-of-charge basis arranged with their employer. Of those who did pay course fees, just 41 obtained the new student loan.
The low take up meant the trial was not a “robust test” of the new student loan scheme.
‘Systematic framework for credit transfer’ concern
The 22 providers of the scheme were announced in December 2021, meaning they had around eight months to develop and market the courses ahead of enrolments in August 2022.
Evaluators said that due to delays with validation and other processes to support provision – such as handling admissions, which had to incorporate eligibility requirements bespoke to a short course – the time available to promote and market courses intended “became very short or even non-existent”.
The report said many providers were also “unclear about the best target market for their provision, which programme guidance suggested should be targeted to adults outside the mainstream HE market but also closely aligned with employers’ needs to upskill their workforces”.
Those two markets required “entirely different promotional strategies, and several projects that started promotions to both markets subsequently narrowed their strategy to only the employer market”.
Evaluators also found a “serious weakness” of the scheme was that providers could not guarantee the future value of credits gained from a course and whether they would be recognised by another provider or accumulated towards a degree.
The report also found that learners required a greater level of flexibility than was offered – particularly as many of the students were working full-time alongside their studies.
Will the LLE ever get off the ground properly?
The short course trial was launched as a step towards the government’s lifelong learning entitlement. Set to be rolled out from 2025, the entitlement will provide individuals with the equivalent of four years of tuition loans – worth up to £37,000 in today’s fees – to use flexibly over their lifetime.
Experts are now questioning whether the LLE can be rolled out successfully.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), described the short course trial figures as “shockingly low”.
He added: “Indeed, some people have even started to question whether the LLE will ever get off the ground properly or whether it will instead get lost in the chaos of this election year.
“For one thing, the Treasury will be reluctant to fund a policy initiative that is yet to look like it is delivering value for money. But lifelong learning is critically important and so my hope is that people will work now hard to learn the hard lessons from the trial – after all that is the point of trials.”
Rose Stephenson, HEPI’s director of policy, said the report’s warning of a “lack of a systematic framework for credit transfer” will be the case for the LLE, unless a sector-wide credit transfer mechanism is in place, tested, and functional ahead of the roll-out.
“With the first set of courses due to launch next year, this feels wildly unobtainable”, Stephenson added.
“Increasing the flexibility on offer, by including modules of less than 30 credits, and funding support for distance learning are two steps needed for the LLE to be successful. Given the tiny figures engaged in this trail, policy makers need to think carefully about whether the LLE is feasible in is current form.”
An OfS blog about the the short course trial evaluation said: “While it is disappointing that enrolments were lower than expected, it is important to emphasise the novel nature of this work and that universities and colleges worked swiftly to develop innovative new courses at speed and with limited resources.
“The evaluation provides a range of recommendations for the OfS, which we will carefully consider in how we run future funding calls of this kind.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Students who enrolled on these courses reported positive experiences and there was strong engagement from employers throughout the process.
“We have taken lessons from the HESC trial forward, for example through the Modular Acceleration Programme, where successful providers will be awarded specific funding for demand rising activities to support the roll-out of their modular courses.”