Minimum eligibility requirements are being applied in a generic way, writes Marius S. Ostrowski
A flagship item in the government’s recent Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is the lifelong loan entitlement. This is a system of financial support that allows people to take up to four years of additional courses to retrain and upskill.
But to realise this vision the government will need to become far more sensitive to the actual situation of potential lifelong learners. By adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to skills development, the current regime unfortunately fails to capture the full range of forms that lifelong learning can take.
Take someone who learns a language or an artisan skill in evening or weekend classes while holding a full-time job. Or someone who takes on-the-job accountancy, management, or computer training sponsored by their firm.
Or indeed someone who dips in and out of an eclectic roster of interests by tuning into “massive open online courses” in sociology or astrophysics.
And what about those who take law or veterinary “conversion courses” after a degree, or those who return to full-time study during a career break?
Unfortunately, the more “non-traditional” forms of post-18 learning are often overlooked by policymakers, whose choices have tended to make lifelong learning easier for some and arbitrarily more difficult for others.
One such choice is the byzantine system of exemptions surrounding minimum eligibility requirements to access the lifelong loan entitlement.
There is a byzantine system of exemptions
These include learners over 25, part-time learners, learners with a level 4 or 5 award, a foundation year, or an access to HE qualification (but only to undertake level 6 study).
Why only from 25? This means that, if someone leaves school at 16 or 18, they will have to work for the best part of a decade before becoming eligible for financial support. At the very least, cutting this to 21 would make financial support more accessible.
Another innovation could be to integrate “in-work” skills development into existing accreditation frameworks. This would give learners a “fast track” to lifelong loan entitlement eligibility regardless of age, if they can show that they have already reached a skills level equivalent to the entry requirements of the qualifications they wish to pursue.
At the same time, minimum eligibility requirements cannot be applied to every qualification in a generic way. Certainly, some standards of literacy, numeracy, or vocational competence should be universal.
But learners should not be disqualified from accessing funding if they have not met a minimum standard in areas irrelevant to their next qualification.
Instead, minimum eligibility requirements need to be tailored to a system of vocation-specific lifelong learning pathways. These should be a joined-up series of courses from sixth form to higher degree study, provided by a learning ecosystem of schools, FE colleges and HE institutions.
The exit requirements for each course level should dovetail seamlessly with the entry requirements for the next level up.
This would eradicate learners’ concerns about not “making the grade” to access further funding. It would also make it easier to “step on and off” this lifelong pathway as and when works best for them.
To make the lifelong loan entitlement truly lifelong, the government must also replace the four-year limit on funding availability. Courses can deliver skills improvements over very variable stretches of time ̶ compare a year of night classes to a week of training days, or a term of college study.
Instead, the government should set a limit on the total number of course credits it will fund ̶ say, 600 credits, equivalent to five years’ worth of full-time degree study.
Then learners can see how much of their entitlement they have “left”, and it becomes easier to attach funding precisely to courses on a per-module basis.
This relies on a transparent, overarching accreditation framework for technical, academic and integrated qualifications. Scotland has already led the way on this, and Wales is close behind. It is time for the rest of the UK to follow suit.
The government has created a space for a genuinely radical transformation of lifelong learning.
It now has to ensure it creates the system that works best for learners, no matter who they are or what situation they are in.