Unique learner numbers (ULNs) should be mandatory and used across all awarding organisations to make it easier for student results to be issued, researchers have suggested.
Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton has backed the idea and claimed that if ULNs had been universally used in the summer of 2022 the number of delayed BTEC results would have been reduced.
The Department for Education is understood to be considering how to extend the use of ULNs in the face of long-held barriers that get in the way of a system-wide roll-out, such as cost and data protection.
Sector-wide use of ULNs was called for in a research report published today by ImpactEd Consulting, which investigated steps that “might help to secure parity of treatment for students taking different types of qualification, and to streamline the workload for schools and colleges”.
The research is part of Ofqual’s action plan to support the “safe and timely” delivery of awarding organisations’ results for vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) after last year’s results debacle that saw around 21,000 BTEC and Cambridge Technical results issued late, leaving students in limbo.
The ULN, launched in 2008, is issued and administered by the Learning Record Service (LRS) and is designed to collate data for students’ personal learning records (PLR), an online record of qualifications and achievements obtained from the age of 13 or 14. It is often compared to the education equivalent of the National Insurance number.
Despite being around for 15 years and the fact that schools and colleges are mandated to use the ULN for individualised learner record (ILR) submissions for all publicly funded qualifications, not all awarding organisations require schools and colleges to provide the number. Instead, some AOs prefer to use their own candidate ID numbers.
Various challenges make using the ULN difficult, the researchers explain, such as students not being aware of their number, learners being assigned more than one number, and students sharing the same number – common for people with shared or similar names and addresses.
According to UCAS, fewer than 17 per cent of higher education applicants currently include their ULN in their applications.
‘Systemic use of ULN benefits all actors in the system’
ImpactEd Consulting proposed an “ideal scenario” where the LRS would record all general and vocational qualifications for all students aged 13 and above and the data exchange between schools, colleges, awarding bodies and the LRS would be based on the ULN. This “one portal” idea would “require collaboration between the DfE, Ofqual and IfATE to ensure alignment over purpose, use cases and data-sharing agreements”.
Such a system would improve the student “experience” for results releases and enrolment periods, reduce risks of human error, provide quick access to previous achievements for colleges, reduce risk around data duplication and fraud for awarding bodies and offer reassurance that student data is matched correctly.
Saxton, who wrote a preface for ImpactEd Consulting’s report, supports the proposal. She said: “Ofqual sees real potential for students, and for all parts of the qualifications ecosystem, including policy makers, in the full use by the whole system of a unique student identifier.
“Had this been fully used in the summer of 2022, it would have been significantly easier to work out which students needed results. As it was, the same student could be identified under different references across awarding organisations and UCAS, making it challenging to identify which results were still needed.”
She added that apart from the “operational clarity” this could help provide, it could also “support the regulator in better understanding awarding organisations’ progress in safe delivery of results, as well as to evaluate qualification choices and use”.
The key, however, is incentivising how awarding bodies can “best be incentivised to support the system-wide adoption”, according to ImpactEd Consulting.
Researchers said there was a big push from the DfE between 2010 and 2012 to make the ULN mandatory for AOs and enforce result uploads to the LRS using the ULN.
However, use of the ULN could only be mandated for publicly funded qualifications. Adoption of the policy was then “slow” and benefits of a more systemic use “were not communicated sufficiently”.
Additionally, from October 2015, awarding bodies developed their qualifications more independently, without the need to incorporate required units or credits following the switch from the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) to the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF).
ImpactEd Consulting said the “removal of set deadlines for qualifications under QCF and the move towards a system that allows students to set the pace of their learning” also meant that “co-ordination across AOs became less of a priority and that the roll-out of the ULN lost traction”.
Researchers found current issues facing awarding bodies to adopt ULNs include the cost of updating awarding body software systems, a lack of clarity about who is best placed to drive the effort – Ofqual or DfE, GDPR, and completeness of the data.
Awarding bodies are also concerned about their commercial interests. ImpactEd Consulting explained that the “benefits to any individual AO of rolling out the ULN do not outweigh the cost of making changes to their MI systems and training staff which is why this initiative requires government leadership”.
The researchers concluded: “Our conversations underline that increased systemic use of the ULN benefits all actors in the system, even if it does require some upfront investment and potential change of processes. At the same time, it is also apparent that the current approach, whereby it is up to AOs to decide whether or not they use the ULN for VTQs, is not working.
“To break out of this spiral and move the roll-out of the ULN forward, there is a need for different government agencies to come together to align on key priorities.”
Saxton suggested the DfE has started work in this area. She said: “Ofqual welcomes the Department for Education’s work considering the existing ULN.”
The DfE told FE Week it is making no changes to the ULN, but it is looking to make the ULN “more visible to students and easier to access going forward”.