From education to employment

Lifelong Loan Entitlement: We must think carefully as we introduce modularised learning

Professor David Phoenix, Vice Chancellor of London South, Bank University and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Education Commission

Despite many questions surrounding tertiary education being up in the air recently, there is one area of policy development which appears to have been etched in stone since the moment it was announced.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) has the potential to revolutionise lifelong learning by allowing learners to take out tuition loans for shorter stand-alone qualifications – including Higher National Certificates (HNCs) or Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs).

If the qualification is part of an educational pathway, this would enable a learner to study a Level 4 course in the full knowledge that they have the option to return to higher education to up-skill or re-skill with a Level 5 or 6 qualification later on.

It would also create a radically more flexible approach to skills development, whereby learners could collect a basket of qualifications relevant to their needs rather than working on a linear progression to degree level study.

A learner might, for example, undertake a second Level 4 course later in their career rather than automatically progressing to Level 5. This could have a significant impact on the country’s ability to address the shortfall in the proportion of our society holding a Level 4 qualification. Further, in large organisations like the NHS, it could support workforce development and retention by allowing individuals to re-skill and change specialism as required.

It’s for these reasons that, as a Commissioner for the Lifelong Education Commission, I was pleased that our first report welcomed the introduction of the LLE – whilst also arguing that it should be accessible to all citizens, regardless of
their prior qualifications.

Taking a more modular approach

To facilitate the benefits outlined here and drive flexibility in learning, the LLE will have to move from a model which bases funding on years of study to one which takes a more modular approach.

For example, a full year of a degree or HNC at 120 credits could consist of 3 modules of funded study, rather than one complete year carrying a large price tag.

There is logic to this approach; and it may prove invaluable to those individuals looking to up-skill in a specific professional area – particularly in the face of automation and ongoing rapid changes in the job market.

My institution, London South Bank University, for example recently submitted a successful bid to the Office for Students’ Short Course Trial to run courses on retrofitting buildings, aimed at existing built environment professionals.

Given that individuals with bachelor’s degrees will usually have one year’s worth of funding entitlement left, the option to break this up into individual modules, or short courses would no doubt be welcomed by many.

Avoiding more educational dead ends

The higher education framework is, however, internationally defined, and so there is a risk that funding at a modular (rather than at a qualification) level could create a significant administrative burden.

Without proper information, advice and guidance, such a model could also see learners unintentionally using much of their four-year loan entitlements on a disparate array of ‘modules’ or short courses which do not ultimately amount to a meaningful qualification.

Some short courses provide specific skills required by employers – and where that is the case, employers pay for them. But what of those learners taking short courses in the hope of building a higher-level qualification over time?

A degree is not simply a random collection of modules. They are composed of many core components that need to be covered and there is an interplay between modules. This is particularly true of professionally accredited degrees.

Building modules into meaningful qualifications

There is therefore a question of who will help these learners to build modules into meaningful qualifications if that is their aim?

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement has the opportunity to revolutionise tertiary education by providing a more flexible system that moves away from a focus on year-long courses or degree level outcomes.

The Government must ensure, however, that it provides the means for learners to upskill and reskill to meet their career aspirations rather than adding more educational dead ends to a system that is already full of them.

Unless an individual short course meets a specific occupational need, or is part of a properly designed educational pathway, it could be worth very little to employers and perhaps even to learners themselves

Professor David Phoenix, Vice Chancellor of London South, Bank University and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Education Commission

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  1. Caution and full discussion is required concerning this major initiative.

    A modular approach would be very useful.

    More importantly for me will be how the initiative will allocate the funding for the additional learning / skills / qualifications for each individual. Will there be a cap on the value of the loans?