The devil lurks in the detail of government’s lifelong loan response

Some clarity on the lifelong loan entitlement is welcome, but the debate over access to lifelong learning is far from over, writes Gordon Marsden

Some clarity on the lifelong loan entitlement is welcome, but the debate over access to lifelong learning is far from over, writes Gordon Marsden

10 Mar 2023, 12:30

Nudged by the chair of the education select committee in parliament last week, ministers had little choice but to release their overdue consultation response on the lifelong loan entitlement. But was it worth the wait?

We now know there will be maintenance loans for part-time adult learning and modules, and that the ELQ rule which barred people with previous qualifications from getting financial support will be abolished. This is critical to overcoming massive challenges for upskilling and reskilling. So, some angels in LLE’s architecture – but devils are already busy down below in the details. 

One issue is that maintenance loans will only be available for in-person courses and not for distance learners. This cuts across strategies for more digital learning and thousands of learners may miss out. The Open University’s vice chancellor Tim Blackman has already sounded the alarm, (the OU teaches almost half the UK’s part-time undergraduates) but other FE and HE providers could also be hit, seriously blighting them and an economic recovery. 

The DfE tone is often grudging and raises more questions than answers

The LLE response admits LLE should provide “options relevant to industry/society” and “should be as flexible as possible and centred on learners’ choice rather than employer needs”. In detailed responses to DfE’s questions (all 48 of them) the respondents have doubled down on this, particularly regarding questions on employer-relevance as a basis for LLE eligibility and the new modularised study for LLE.

Yet the DfE tone is often grudging and raises more questions than answers. They say the LLE will “also focus funding on those most likely to repay their loans”. How will that be measured? What is its rationale (except a minor cringe to the Treasury)?

It places obstacles in front of the very people they want to have better skills and better jobs to boost productivity. 

On how the much-criticised advanced learner loans (half of which have not been taken up and clawed back year-by-year by the Treasury) transfers to funding through the LLE, they say there must be “clear employer endorsement for the qualification”. 

But what about the millions of self-employed workers and small businesses? These are categories growing faster in the digital world. Not to mention people wanting to get off universal credit and into employment. How are they catered for? It needs changing fast.

The biggest threat to the LLE and lifelong learning isn’t just the devils in the current policy detail. 

The lack of joined up thinking between DfE and DWP is a huge mistake

If we do not pump a steady stream of adults (as well as young people in the 16-24 age range failed in the system) into that pipeline, we will be seriously handicapped in achieving the economic revival and social cohesion we need. At present, that pipeline is blocked.

The disappointing responses from government scything many post-16 qualifications and the brutal way ministers have tried to emasculate BTECs so T Levels might have no competitors, means many potential learners won’t even get to level 3 — let alone level 4+ where LLE kicks in. And the lack of joined up thinking between DfE and DWP, both setting their face against grants for disadvantaged people, is a huge mistake. 

This week I was at a masterclass lecture (organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute) from Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD. With sweeping charts and research slides, he said an ageing population will reduce the flow of young people into tertiary education from 2030. 

Schleicher said the number of part-time students in the UK was going the wrong way. And with only 1 in 10 older adults – not just in UK – in learning at work, continuous learning for life must be central to economic and social wellbeing. 

With 5-6 million people lacking basic skills and 800,000 young people still NEETs, those are words worth weighing as the LLE and its implications hit home.

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