Merging lifelong loans and degree funding ‘messy and unhelpful’

Adult education and skills development needs separate pot of money, THE event hears

December 7, 2023

Bringing together funding for traditional three-year degrees and lifelong learning in the same system will be “confusing, messy and unhelpful”, according to an expert.

Discussing plans in England to establish a new system of student finance that will offer adults access to up to four years’ worth of loan funding on a flexible basis, Jonathan Michie, professor of innovation and knowledge exchange at the University of Oxford, said it would have been better to have created a new pot of money to try to revive adult education.

“What they [the government] should have done is what all the commissions who have looked at this over the past few years have advised, which is [to] create a separate lifelong learning entitlement where you are given a pot of money when you are 21, [which is] topped up when you are 30, topped up when you are 40, etc,” he told Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event in Liverpool.

“[It should be] a genuine entitlement quite separate from the funding for the three-year degree. The fact it is meshed together has just made it confusing, messy and unhelpful.”

Appearing on the same panel, René Koglbauer, the dean of lifelong learning at Newcastle University, agreed that where the policy was most likely to fail was in the funding aspect.

“There is a perception that industry will ask their employees to take out a loan to undertake CPD [continuing professional development], but that is not our culture,” Professor Koglbauer said.

“Our culture is: ‘If you want me to train or be upskilled in the business, then the business will be paying.’ The idea that employees will be taking out a loan at the age of 40 or 45 won’t happen.”

Rachel Hewitt, the chief executive of MillionPlus, the association for modern universities, said there was widespread support for the idea of lifelong learning but much about the policy still needed to be worked out before its implementation, scheduled for 2025.

Explaining to students and employers what it is will be crucial, Ms Hewitt said. “There is not much value of an LLE being brought in if it doesn’t have employer understanding of what those qualifications really mean in practice when you come out of the other side – particularly if it focused around trying to upskill people,” she said.

For it to work, universities will also have to change the way they operate, and there will need to be substantial reforms to how the sector is regulated, added Ms Hewitt.

But, she said, the fact that the policy appeared to have support from both the current government and the Labour Party meant that it was more likely to come to fruition, regardless of the result of the general election, likely to take place next year.

“If universities are going to commit to investing in the LLE, they need to know it is going to be something that will be around in years to come,” Ms Hewitt said.

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