The minister for universities has called upon higher education institutions in England to “really embrace” the forthcoming Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), describing it as a “fantastic opportunity [that] won’t come round again”.
Michelle Donelan joined a Conservative Home panel on the role of universities and levelling-up at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference.
Introducing herself to the audience as “now also the minister for further education” after the recent cabinet reshuffle, Ms Donelan – who was simultaneously promoted to attend cabinet for the first time – went on to say: “If I was asked what I would like to see from the sector over the coming years, I would say really embrace LLE.
“This is a fantastic opportunity it won’t come round again, we’ve got to get it right, I’m determined to work with the sector, determined to ensure this delivers for future students, that we really fertilise that demand. That’s why we don’t want to go too fast with this, we’re piloting it in the coming year.”
She said her elevation to cabinet demonstrated the significance education played in the government vision for levelling up.
The lifelong learning entitlement would generate demand for alternative undergraduate and sub-degree courses in the post-16 sector that universities could help meet. “There certainly is a big role for universities to play in technical and vocational education,” Donelan said. “The LLE opens up the sector to a whole audience they haven’t tapped into before.”
“Previous governments haven’t enabled the sector to capitalise upon the huge demand that is potentially there,” she continued. She said she wants universities to offer a greater number of higher technical qualifications and “a breadth of choice” of degree apprenticeships in every part of the country.
Ucas data shows that higher-tariff universities have increased their share of undergraduate enrolments at the expense of low-tariff providers in recent years. Several low-tariff universities have closed humanities and arts courses in recent years, choosing instead to concentrate on specialisms in STEM, healthcare and vocational courses.
I’ve visited numerous universities in the last 18 months, and I’ve seen how some subjects have been brought to life [by online learning]
– Michelle Donelan, universities minister
Donelan was joined on the panel by Prof Graham Baldwin, vice-chair of MillionPlus and vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Trumpeting the work of modern universities, he said: “It is our vocational and technical offerings that truly set us apart, and our ability to innovate and work with business and industry to meet key local needs.”
Donelan was asked if she supports plans for new universities, such as “a University of Grimsby or Doncaster”, in cities and towns in England that do not have one. She joked she could not “make that commitment today”, adding: “It’s not true that we need to have a university in every place…[but] if there is a gap in a specific area then we need to fill those gaps.”
She went on to say: “It isn’t just about creating new universities; we’re also in the process of our second wave of Institutes of Technology, which we’ll be announcing soon.”
In contrast to her former boss – ex-education secretary Gavin Williamson – Donelan appeared upbeat about the role of online learning in HE. “Universities have undergone a process of digitisation”, she observed. “Some commentators say the sector has digitised [in] what would have taken 10 years. So, there have been some key learnings. I’ve visited numerous universities in the last 18 months, and I’ve seen how some subjects have been brought to life. We only hear the negative side in the media, we don’t see the positive side.”
She reiterated her government’s policy on reopening HE campuses: universities should not substitute face-to-face teaching for online delivery because of Covid concerns. Online learning should play a supporting, “enhancing” role in degree offerings, she concluded.
Online learning could, Donelan expanded, assist in the delivery of more forms of flexible, accelerated and modular qualifications.
“The system does support accelerated degrees but they aren’t rolled out in many places, and they never really took off,” she told delegates. “One of the reasons they didn’t take off is we didn’t take the time to develop and fertilise that demand and to support the sector. That’s one of the reasons we have to get LLE right, so that when we introduce a flexible system of modules, it works for universities, colleges and students.”