The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has cautioned that it is “hard to see” how the Lifelong Learning Entitlement will achieve the government’s ambition to increase the number in post-18 education.
The report lays out potential pitfalls and issues with the government’s approach, including funding levels, time-limited tuition restrictions and the potential of learners to follow a disjointed and prolonged study path.
The government has pencilled in the LLE to commence from 2015.
The IFS released a report on 13 June that calculates that – even with the extra £900m budgeted in new spending for 2024-25 – government funding for adult education will only return to 2015 levels.
The think tank warns that since the Conservatives entered government in 2010-11, state funding for adult education and apprenticeships has fallen from £5.4 billion to about £3.4 billion in 2020-21, amounting to a 38% real-terms cut. Despite the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy on firms in April 2017 and changes in the funding regime, total spending on apprenticeships has remained close to £2 billion per year.
The number of adult apprenticeships increased to nearly 400,000 per year in the early part of the decade – but declined to about 250,000 per year since the levy’s introduction. Between 2010 to 2020, a growing percentage of apprenticeships taken are at a higher level, with the numbers of intermediate apprentices dropping from 200,000 to 50,000. These figures suggest the skills pipeline is not working at the lower levels for school-leavers and the less qualified.
Funding levels, however, are only one reason the IFS predicts that the LLE will not prove transformative. “For nearly all post-18 education routes, the loan entitlement [equivalent to four years of tuition] is already at this or a more generous level,” the think tank warns. “The ‘new’ entitlement is thus mostly an attempt to make the existing system more transparent.”
The four-year cap could “actually make the system more restrictive” because it would bar those who previously have used some or most of their ‘allowance’ from enrolling on many courses. The government plans for variable maintenance support, particularly “different maintenance entitlements by course”, undermines its professed desire to create a “unified” funding system for FE and HE.
The IFS says it remains “unclear” whether adults that have already received some post-18 education will receive a lower amount of tuition entitlement. It also says it is “hard to predict” whether more providers will offer the sort of short, stackable modules the LLE seeks to support.
Question marks hang over the transferability of module credits between providers and over time, particularly whether a course taken perhaps decades earlier can count towards a qualification. The IFS says figures from European countries where HE is modular suggest students “are likely to take much longer to complete their degrees if offered the chance”. If reproduced in the UK, this trend is “unlikely to be a desirable outcome” either for students, who may struggle to develop a comprehensive mastery of their field, and the exchequer, which is unlikely to derive enhanced tax receipts from those in long-term education.