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The Kerslake Collection | Opportunity, access and skills

Maximising the potential of the LLE

Key to the civic-university agenda is the ability of citizens in our towns and cities to upskill and reskill. Indeed, Birkbeck emerged more than 200 years ago from the Mechanics’ Institute movement, as the London Mechanics’ Institute, which offered evening education to workers in the City of London. This was an early version of an education institution working with its community to improve people’s lives.

It could also be argued that Birkbeck, University of London was where the idea of a lifelong learning entitlement was gestated. It started at a seminar held in 2017 at our buildings in Russell Square, in conjunction with the Association of Colleges and the Open University. The seminar was held on the broad issue of ‘personal learning accounts’, and sought to bring together international experts from countries where similar learning allowances existed. 

The Singaporean High Commissioner explained in some detail about their SkillsFuture scheme, introduced in 2015, which gave adults credits of $500 SGD to improve their education. SkillsFuture is classed as ‘movement’, much like the original Mechanics’ Institute movement of early Victorian Britain, of which Birkbeck was a part. Indeed, it says of itself that ‘SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) drives and coordinates the implementation of the national SkillsFuture movement, promotes a culture and holistic system of lifelong learning through the pursuit of skills mastery, and strengthens the ecosystem of quality education and training in Singapore.’ SkillsFuture has proven such a success that it is being expanded to accommodate mid-career workers, who are given $4,000 SGD to reskill and to boost their careers. 

One point to add is that the failure of Individual Learning Accounts (ILA) in the late 1990s, where fraud was widespread, was at the forefront of people’s minds. The ILA were predominantly used for shorter and lower-priced courses, rather than for sub-degree or degree-level qualifications. As part of the 2017 Birkbeck discussion, all participants were keen to move away from the earlier experience, by casting around for something new that would address higher-level study, rather than lower-level short-cycle courses. It was not long, however, before these arguments came to the forefront of political debate. 

After the 2017 general election, the post-18 review of education and funding was established, chaired by Sir Philip Augar, a former Barclays Bank executive. The panel, which reported in May 2019, was made up of independent experts, including Alison Wolf, professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, who had been present at the Birkbeck seminar. 

The Augar review recommended the ‘introduction of a lifelong learning loan allowance to be used at higher technical and degree level at any stage of an adult’s career for full and part time students’. For the first time in UK history, this introduced the concept of a funding entitlement for learners taking higher-education or further-education courses.

In September 2020, the prime minister announced in a speech on skills, delivered at Exeter College, that:

‘We are going to change the funding model so that it is just as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE college – or do two years of electrical engineering – as it is to get a loan to do a three year degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. The Augar review highlighted the complexity of the funding system, the bias that propels young people into universities and away from technical education. It is time to end that bias. And in the coming years…we will move to a system where every student will have a flexible lifelong loan entitlement to four years of post-18 education – and suddenly, with that four-year entitlement, and with the same funding mechanism, you bring universities and FE closer together; you level up between them, and a new vista of choice opens up.’ 

Ultimately this led to the Skills for Jobs White Paper in February 2021, which featured the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) for the first time. It took a further year, until February 2022, for the Government to give a full response to the Augar review, although development of the LLE had already started by this stage – partly through measures in the white paper specifically connected to it.

The legislation for the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (although originally called the Lifelong Loan Entitlement) was brought in piecemeal. While we can understand the practicalities involved in civil-service drafting time and finding space in the parliamentary calendar, the fragmented nature of this has perhaps led many in the sector not to take it seriously enough. 

The Skills and Post-16 Education Act (2021) started to lay out the framework for the LLE, and looked at the issue of credit-based and modular charging, as well as the legal framework. The LLE itself would fund courses more than 30 credits in length. With the introduction of a four-year entitlement and the ability to study credit-bearing courses, there was a risk of the (current 2024) fee of £9,250 (£37,000 entitlement in total) being breached when linked to 120 credits per equivalent full-time year. 

In 2023, the Government therefore introduced the very thin Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, in order to ensure that equity was introduced over the range of course and programmes that the LLE was designed to fund. This aspect of the LLE gained Royal Assent in September 2023.

Since that point, implementation appears to have slowed, either because of a lack of ministerial commitment or distraction by other political issues. The period between late 2022 and early 2023 certainly proved politically turbulent, seeing two prime ministers within a few months and several secretaries of state for education. But it may also be that the Department for Education in England was distracted by having a blizzard of other initiatives to contend with, including an ever-greater focus on apprenticeships, the roll out of T levels and the scoping of a new Advanced British Standard, designed to replace A levels and create a Baccalaureate-style qualification to age 18. 

As of spring 2024, there are still pieces of information missing in order for the public and providers to have further confidence in the new system, not least the question of maintenance loans. Information on the personal account has been promised in the latter half of 2024. But equally concerning is the statement, ‘In autumn 2024, we will lay the secondary legislation that will set out the rest of the LLE funding system in parliament.’ This particular point on timing may cause problems – which we will come to later. 

Listed below is a time frame for different parts of the implementation process, looking at how it fits in with other aspects of the education system. For clarity, the Advanced Learner Loans were established previously to fund level 3, 4, 5 or 6 qualifications taken in a further-education or training-provider setting. They cover course fees, not maintenance, although there is some limited support available. The LLE is designed to replace Advanced Learner Loans and the current Student Finance England loans for undergraduate students. The Higher Technical Qualifications referred to are level 4 and 5 qualifications with a significant vocational element. These are new qualifications, and are gradually being rolled out across England.

The roll-out of the LLE will include:

From 2025, full courses formerly funded by the higher-education student-finance system and full courses formerly funded through Advanced Learner Loans that can demonstrate learner demand and employer endorsement.

From 2025, modules of some ‘job-specific’ technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5, including Higher Technical Qualifications.”

From 2027, modular student finance will be extended to levels 4 to 6 where the Government ‘can be confident of positive student outcomes’.

So, from the start of the 2025 academic year, the LLE will fund: bachelor’s degrees; integrated master’s degrees and postgraduate certificates of education; foundation years and Higher Technical Qualifications; and other courses formerly funded by Advanced Learner Loans.

We must also turn to the challenge faced by the Labour Party on this issue. As has been stated earlier, the Government only intends to bring the remaining legislation needed to finalise the rest of the LLE funding system in autumn 2024. This takes us beyond the July 2024 general election. The LLE therefore could stumble on the last hurdle if there is no buy-in or agreement from other political parties. Lifelong learning is seen as a priority by the Labour Party, and there has been work on skills issues from the Right 2 Learn group, as well as a detailed report by the Council of Skills Advisors for the Labour Party, chaired by the former education secretary, Lord Blunkett, which argues for the return of a form of Individual Learning Account:

Individual Learning Accounts were recommended by Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission in 2019, and the European Commission has recently advised its Member States to adopt a version of this policy. They would incorporate and supersede the Conservative government’s Lifelong Loan Entitlement scheduled to be available from 2025 – and will be substantially more ambitious, more equitable and therefore more successful in stimulating continuing learning. While loans would remain available, bursaries and contributions from the Apprenticeship and Learning Levy would, over time, provide the student with funding that they could draw down on whenever and wherever this was appropriate to their progress within, and between, jobs.

In September 2019, before the previous general election, one of us (David Latchman) was invited to be part of the Lifelong Learning Commission convened by the Labour Party and chaired by Estelle Morris, a former education secretary, and Dave Ward, a senior trade-union official. The Commission explored a number of policy ideas that were perhaps understandably lost in the aftermath of the general election and the Covid pandemic. Ultimately, the Lifelong Learning Commission was not taken any further, as Labour did not form a government in 2019. 

As of June 2024, an election has been called for the 4 July. While the Labour Party has published its manifesto, few specific proposals have been announced on lifelong learning. There is a broad commitment to: 

‘recognise that UK higher education creates opportunity, is a world-leading sector in our economy, and supports local communities. To better integrate further and higher education, and ensure high-quality teaching, Labour’s post-16 skills strategy will set out the role for different providers, and how students can move between institutions, as well as strengthening regulation.’ 

At this stage, then, there is no detail – but a hint that portability between institutions (such as that facilitated by the LLE) could well be a priority. 

It is clear that in 2024 Labour is in a very different place from 2019. But the need for people to retrain and reskill at all levels is still there, as the pace of technological change accelerates the challenges facing the workforce.

In our minds, the point most pertinent to this essay from the Lifelong Learning Commission work was the development of a ‘universal, funded entitlement to learn’, which flowed from the International Labour Organisation’s Global Commission on the Future of Work. That report called for ‘the formal recognition of a universal settlement to lifelong learning and the establishment of an effective lifelong learning system’. The point of an entitlement is that it applies to all citizens, regardless of background, rather than creating eligibility or requiring them to meet particular criteria. The Lifelong Learning Commission took the view that such a learning entitlement would include as a minimum the ability to access fully funded local learning appropriate to all groups at all ages, up to level 3, to include modules and full qualifications. Furthermore, it would include the equivalent of six years’ publicly funded credits at level 4, to be taken in blocks or smaller modules. The latter is similar to the offer made by the current Conservative Government, except that the Conservative version only covers four years, rather than six. A six-year entitlement would be much more accommodating. For example: two three-year undergraduate degrees or one four-year undergraduate master’s, plus a further two years for a further-education course or professional qualification. It could give maximum flexibility.

The commission also took the view that there was a need for a digital platform to create and track entitlements. This was described as a ‘personal education portal’, and has also been articulated in the proposals for the lifelong learning entitlement. Similar schemes exist with SkillsFuture, the Singaporean movement for lifelong learning highlighted elsewhere in this article. The challenge now is to ensure that Labour commits to a policy of lifelong learning, whether it is an adoption of the Commission recommendations or a Labour version of the lifelong learning entitlement. 

The Conservative Government made its intentions clear, with the LLE and the apprenticeship levy, but Labour’s plans remain unclear. As the manifesto suggests, there will be a place for higher-level skills as part of the growth agenda, but could it sit alongside a citizen entitlement for lifelong learning.

One possibility would be to link an additional two years of study – from the Government’s offer of four years up to six – creating flex in Labour’s proposed ‘growth and skills levy’ by using levy funds from business to fund the additional two years. The existing four-year loan entitlement would still be there, but the additional two years would be funded by the current apprenticeship levy. This creates some of the links not fully developed under the Dearing review in 1997 or under the later Browne review in 2010, and even as part of Principle 4 of the Augar review, where employers should also contribute to higher education and learning. It would also mean that degree apprentices who wanted to undertake further study could do so via employer support. At present, the proposed LLE model encourages the employee to take all of the risk of retraining without any guaranteed benefits. This recommendation goes some way towards rectifying that balance. This means that the first four years at least should be subject-blind, in the sense that it cannot be directed purely towards vocational courses. The freedom of choice for the core four years must still be there – whether to study History or Mechanical Engineering – but backed up with appropriate careers advice. 

It’s true that the higher-education short-course trial run by the Office for Students in 2021 was largely unsuccessful, because of the narrow choice of subjects – they had to be vocational in nature and were poorly advertised. But we believe at these early stages that if wider subject provision had been allowed, or even an institution-level trial, then the results could have been much more positive. This link between the academic and the vocational would have some cut-through in the civic-university space, ensuring that education could be enjoyed for its own sake, as well as for upskilling citizens and benefiting the economy. This should encourage a greater interaction between universities and their locality. If it is to be a true lifelong learning entitlement, then citizens should have freedom of choice over that entitlement – where, what and when to study. 

Jonathan Woodhead and Professor David Latchman CBE

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