Adult learners will have access to maintenance loans under the government’s flagship lifelong loan entitlement (LLE), it has been announced.
This will be the first time that maintenance support will be available for adults studying part time and on modular courses, the Department for Education (DfE) said.
Ministers also confirmed that the controversial equivalent and lower level funding rule (ELQ), which prohibits funding for higher level courses at or below a level a learner is already qualified, will be scrapped under the scheme.
However a bar on over-60s accessing the scheme has been branded an “ageist strategy” by one expert.
MPs, including Robin Walker, the chair of the education committee, raised the need for more clarity on the LLE policy in parliament last week during the second reading of the lifelong learning (higher education fee limits) bill in the House of Commons.
Walker pushed the minister, Robert Halfon, to release the consultation response before the bill, which contains some supporting legislation for the LLE, gets to committee stage in the House of Commons, which is scheduled for March 21 to 28. Halfon promised Walker he would be “speedy”.
Committee stage is where a group of MPs scrutinise the bill line by line and debate amendments. The committee’s membership hasn’t yet been appointed, but it is now accepting written evidence on the LLE from the public.
Researchers at Public First found last year that, while the idea of lifelong learning was popular, the idea of a lifelong loan was not, casting doubt on the premise of the policy.
The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said: “Lifelong learning is critical to career progression, helping to fill skills gaps and boost the economy, which is why this overhaul to our student finance system is so important.
“The lifelong loan entitlement will give people flexibility to study, train and upskill throughout their working life, in recognition that careers aren’t linear. In doing so, it will
facilitate a complete culture shift in the way further and higher education is viewed and who it is available to.”
Phased roll out
The LLE is a new system of student finance which gives adults access to tuition and maintenance loans for courses at levels 4 and 6, including higher technical qualifications.
The government hopes the LLE will reverse the decade-plus long decline in part time learning and higher level technical training by providing student loans for modules as well as short and full higher level courses.
Students will get an online account which will show them how much loan funding they are entitled to, and which courses and modules they can spend it on. The loan entitlement will be worth the equivalent of four years undergraduate tuition fees – currently £37,000.
Completing a module with give students a “standardised transcript” which should enable them to transfer credits to another provider and build up to a full qualification.
Today’s consultation response confirms that the scheme will be phased in gradually.
LLE loans will be available for modules of higher technical qualifications (HTQs) and “some technical level 4 and 5 qualifications” first from 2025. Then from 2027, the scheme will expand to other level 4 to 6 qualifications.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said that the LLE “has the potential to be a game-changer” but wanted “more thinking about how the LLE fits into the whole tertiary education offer, including FE and apprenticeships, at every level and particularly at level 3 and below. Demand at level 4 depends on pathways for adults to take at lower levels”.
While today’s announcement on access to maintenance loans was welcomed by sector leaders, there is not yet any clarity on how much future students will have access to or how it will apply to students studying short or modular courses.
“Maintenance loans will be available for student studying many more technical and part-time courses, including modules of courses, for the first time. This will set the system on a par with traditional full time study and open up new study and training opportunities for people from all backgrounds,” DfE said.
Maintenance loans for living costs and certain targeted grant schemes, such as the disabled students allowance (DSA) and the childcare grant will be available for “for all eligible courses and modules that require in-person attendance under the LLE”.
Eligibility under those schemes, such as the applicant’s income, is likely to remain the same as now.
The department said details of how maintenance loans will be calculated for part time, modular and short courses will be provided prior to the LLE’s launch in 2025.
Jane Hickie, chief executive of the Association for Employment and Learning Providers said: “the development of lifelong learning accounts will help empower much greater choice for adults deciding how and where to undertake their future training needs.
“We are also pleased to see the introduction of maintenance support covering provision at level 4 for the first time – as this will help more adults with the costs of living while retraining.”
ELQ rule scrapped
Students will be able to access a loan for modules and full qualifications at an equivalent or lower level than a qualification they hold already under the LLE.
The so-called “ELQ rule” currently in place means that students can only access student finance for level 4+ courses at a higher level than one they have studied before.
Calls for removal of the rule have grown since the LLE was first announced and the government floated “amending” ELQ restrictions with the LLE in its skills for jobs white paper in January 2021 prior to consulting on the LLE.
Scrapping the ELQ rule for the LLE was welcomed by leaders.
Vivenne Stern, chief executive at Universities UK, said: “The removal of ELQ requirements and the expansion of part-time maintenance support should be celebrated and will help new and returning people access the courses they need to thrive.
“If we get the communication out to learners right and keep the burden on providers low, then the Lifelong Loan Entitlement has the potential to be truly transformative.”
Too old to learn
The LLE will only be available up to the age of 60.
This, according to Susan Pember, policy director of HOLEX, is an “ageist strategy”.
By the time the LLE is fully rolled out, the retirement age will be 67, Pember states, and argues that even a reduced entitlement would be put to good use by older people.
“The upper age cap not only undermines the need to attract and retain older people in the labour market, but also takes opportunities away from people with a huge amount to offer their communities through volunteering.
“It draws a hard line which says that some people are too old to learn” Pember said.
A “residual entitlement calculation” will be in place, so that someone who did a three-year degree before tuition fees were introduced, would still be entitled to a loan worth one year (£9,250) under the LLE.
This principle will also be applied both to adults who did a degree before tuition fees were introduced, and to those who went to university when tuition fees were lower.
DfE told FE Week more detail behind the calculation will be available in autumn 2023.