Short course competition to trial ‘new, flexible student loans’

A competition to design short courses is seen by the government as a trial of its plans for lifelong learning entitlements

The government has invited universities and colleges in England to bid for a share of a £2 million fund to trial new short courses – the first step on the government’s route to implement flexible lifelong learning entitlements (LLE).

By 2025, ministers at the Department for Education (DfE) want students to have access to “flexible” student loans that “put an end to the perception” that undergraduate degrees are the only viable route after school.

The Higher Education Short Course Challenge (HESC) competition, launched today, will support up to 20 new short courses that pilot this new student finance system and “test learner behaviours”.

The DfE is undertaking the trial with the Office for Students (OfS), which will assess the courses, and the Student Loans Company (SLC), which will oversee the new loans, the first incarnation of the LLE.

Ministers hope the LLE reforms this decade will direct more learners and cash into higher technical education.

The short courses – which could last between six weeks to six months – must be in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), healthcare, “digital innovation”, education or those “supporting net-zero”. Year-long part-time courses could also win funding from the DfE competition. Each should lead to “a certificate” that can “build towards future training and employment”.

To attract funding from the HESC competition, universities must demonstrate the proposed short course benefits learners and holds value for employers.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Ensuring everyone is given the opportunity to reach their full potential, no matter their age or life stage, is a vital part of our mission to level up this country.

“By trialling university short courses – backed up by new, flexible student loans – we are giving people the chance to learn at a pace that is right for them.

“Learning is a lifelong journey, and this competition is a critical step in creating courses which meet the needs of learners, employers and our wider economy.”

It is important to break down existing barriers around access to higher education, and these courses help to further add to the diversity of England’s well regarded higher education system
– James Wharton, OfS

The HESC trial “is just one of the steps we are taking to test the effectiveness of the LLE” the DfE added in its statement. Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced plans for the LLE in January 2020; plans later reiterated in the Queen’s speech in May 2021. In April 2021, Donelan told a delegation at the TASO (Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education) conference that LLE trials “will inform our approach to lifelong learning“.

In April 2021, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) concluded the DfE proposal for a LLE is welcome, but unclear.

“These new short courses will enable students to study in a way which works for them, rather than committing to a three or four-year degree, which isn’t for everyone,” said James Wharton, chair of the OfS.

“It is important to break down existing barriers around access to higher education, and these courses help to further add to the diversity of England’s well regarded higher education system. I encourage all universities and colleges to consider applying for this important funding which will help ensure the doors of our universities are open to anyone with the ability to succeed.”

The HESC competition closes on 28 September and winners will be announced in November.

Read more: Michelle Donelan: ‘My door is always open’

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