The next government must set up a commission on tertiary education

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement is an opportunity to rethink our model of skills development and remove the barriers to innovative provision

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement is an opportunity to rethink our model of skills development and remove the barriers to innovative provision

24 Jun 2024, 5:00

The parallels between independent providers of higher education and HE delivered in FE are numerous. Many have discussed the need to draw together the segmented parts of our post-18 tertiary landscape.

At IHE, our Manifesto for higher education recommends the creation of a Tertiary Education Commission for this very purpose: to benefit the entire sector and enable students to choose the type and size of learning they want, without worrying about the particular method of funding required to access it.

IHE is calling on the next government to embrace the opportunities presented by the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) and to remove the barriers for providers who are ready and able to re-skill our nation in the way the LLE intends.

We need more providers who are connected to local industries, driven by a curiosity to innovate, who use their roots in communities to engage with businesses and understand the requirements of employers. Such options are ideal for students who are local, commuter students, or those who have a passion for a subject and want to study where there are specialist facilities.

IHE members like Futureworks in Manchester design their courses in collaboration with industry, providing cutting-edge technology for students at their purpose-built MediaCityUK studios.

In a different field, Metanoia Institute schedule their classes during evenings and weekends so that their predominantly mature students on psychotherapy and counselling programmes can fit study around their careers. Often, students have an affiliation with this type of small education provider which cannot be emulated by a large university outside of their local community, or they want to study with a specialist rather than at a larger, more diffuse provider.

As part of the preparations for LLE, the Office for Students (OfS) ran the Higher Education Short Courses Trial. In the eyes of commentators, it was not a success. Arguably though, this was a misadventure in design rather than a failure through lack of appetite.

What we really need is more diversity and more choice

New courses were brought to market at speed with no clear method of finding a target audience, ultimately attracting just 125 students. of which only 41 were student loan recipients.

Student numbers in the trial could have looked very different. Imagine, instead, a trial focused on the existing highly successful courses delivered across our tertiary landscape – like those delivered by West Dean College who offer stackable modular provision across a range of arts, design, craft and conservation subjects.

Pathways through a lifetime of learning should be enabled so that if a student wants to study a level 4 module at their local provider and step into a related apprenticeship course, they are not prevented from doing so by the confusion of different systems.

Providers of education should not be so bound by regulation that they cannot offer a bridge from one course to another.

That is why we are calling for a Tertiary Education Commission. We must tackle the inefficiencies between the silos of our current system. Overlapping regulation keeps small teams in colleges and independent providers from their real purpose, while OfS and Ofsted assess the same providers in different ways for the same things.

OfS haven’t even determined how to measure success under modular LLE delivery yet. Providers should not have to unpick disproportionate regulation not built for their scale in order to offer students the choice they deserve.

As so often happens with funded projects, the Short Course Trial focused on traditional universities and STEM subjects, and students were expected to fall into line to sign up. We are seeing this same short-sightedness again in the rhetoric around low-value courses, with government expecting their priorities to dictate student behaviour.

It is disheartening to have to rehearse the arguments for why cutting ‘low-value’ courses is unhelpful but we must persist. What we really need is more diversity and more choice.

LLE purports to offer this solution, reaching learners throughout their lives. Independent providers and colleges are already experts in doing just this; government has proven that they have not yet mastered the approach.

There is much we can all learn from each other to make the LLE work in the best interests of students – a Tertiary Education Commission will be just the forum to do it.

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One comment

  1. Just call it a loan please!

    Those using their ‘entitlement’ are effectively RPI+x% less equal.

    Those with the resources to avoid the ‘entitlement’ are RPI+x% less disadvantaged.

    There are good reasons why many of the fairer societies around the world fund education through general taxation and choose not to put up artificial barriers to talent.