Funding and regulation ‘disincentive’ to lifelong learning reform

University Alliance warns ministers that funding shortages and HE regulation will prohibit universities from delivering the ambitions of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement

A group of technical universities has warned the government will fail to achieve its ambitions for the new Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) unless it reviews higher education funding and regulation. 

A government consultation in England on plans for the LLE closes on Friday, 6 May. University Alliance (UA) – which represents 14 universities that specialise in technical education – warned that funding levels and regulation set by the Office for Students (OfS) would discourage the expansion of flexible, modular courses. 

The government wants greater modularisation in the HE system, with more diverse study options than three-year degrees, which have become the dominant undergraduate study route in the last decade. It hopes learners can stack and transfer universally-acknowledged course credits from institution to institution, allowing adults to retrain part-time and flexibly throughout their working lives. 

Developing this system will cost, the UA warned, so “getting funding levels right will be essential in ensuring that high-quality modular provision continues and grows”.

“As a minimum, fees and maintenance levels should be proportionate to a full qualification, with pro-rata teaching grants for high-cost modules,” said the mission group.

Funding and regulation 'disincentive' to lifelong learning reformFunding and regulation 'disincentive' to lifelong learning reform
Debra Humphris – chair of University Alliance and vice-chancellor of Brighton University – said the mission group had “acute local understanding” of lifelong learning requirements

The type of HE regulation implemented by the OfS, with a particular focus on continuation and completion, “has incentivised providers to prioritise full-time provision”, the UA said. It called for “a new approach”, which acknowledges the different backgrounds and needs of students. If the OfS retains its metrics,  the UA warned it would “disincentivise institutions from truly embracing the modular delivery and flexible entry requirements required to make the LLE a success”.

The mission group warned the government to leave universities to set entry requirements for HE courses. A separate England-wide consultation on sweeping HE reforms proposes minimum entry standards for tuition fee loans. The UA rejected these proposals, arguing “providers should assess whether on-the-job experience, for example, may qualify a learner for entry at a higher level”. 

The mission group calls on the government to fund trial regional education hubs, which would work with employers and HE providers “to link learners, education providers, local, regional and national skills bodies and employers”. In consultation with employers, these centres should offer expert, impartial advice to learners and guide providers toward meeting local demands. 

There are already many ways set out for employers to engage with the skills agenda through, for example, the Future Skills Unit, Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). But the UA suggests new regional education hubs could “pool information from across these initiatives” and unify HE with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IFATE) and Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies. 

Other suggestions from the University Alliance “blueprint” for LLE: 

  • Reintroduce means-tested, targeted maintenance grants so that income and employment do not deter people from pursuing education 
  • Include all courses from levels 4 to 7 in the scope of the LLE
  • Set a nationally recognised credit and qualifications framework with help from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)
  • Establish a National Learner Record system, with records of credits accumulated and loans 
  • Establish an e-portfolio system for all learners to save and share their work
  • Encourage employers to continue to invest in skills and training, perhaps by considering LLE funding alongside other funding like the apprenticeship levy. 

University Alliance chair Prof Debra Humphris said: “The connections that University Alliance institutions maintain across our communities provide an acute local understanding of the nuances of employer and student demand for training and higher education. 

“We are already partnered with local employers in business and industry, and are well placed to utilise our existing infrastructure to help deliver the Lifelong Loan Entitlement provision to our regions.”

Read more: Lifelong learning entitlement requires ‘sustainable’ university funding

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