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Making lifelong learning work for the regions

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Learning Commission
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Earlier this month, as part of the Queen’s Speech, the Government announced plans to introduce a Higher Education Bill. Part of its purpose is to enable the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement (LLE), which will provide individuals with a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education that can be used over a lifetime for flexible study at both further and higher education providers.

While the LLE is pitched as a means to improve the skills system by ensuring people get the skills that employers want, very little is known about how the LLE will work in practice. A consultation soliciting views on the scope and scale of the LLE closed on Friday 06 May.

At London Higher – the representative body for over 40 universities and higher education colleges across London – we are viewing the LLE as a welcome reform to unlock opportunities for learners and make tertiary education the solution to the country’s productivity puzzle. But the current proposals lack an important regional dimension, so we have put forward a plan to utilise the LLE to address skills shortages at a much more effective local level.

No ‘one size fits all’

Just as the Government argues that there is no ‘one size fits all’ route for individual learners’ journeys, there is also ‘no one size fits all’ approach to local skills plans across the UK, with each region experiencing different labour market pressures and requiring different talents and skills. The Lifelong Education Commission, for which I am a Commissioner, has already highlighted this through its call for a local ‘Learning and Skills System’ to level up inequalities within places such as Doncaster.

Those parts of the country with metro mayors have already invested significant time and effort mapping regional skills needs. In London, the Mayor of London’s Skills Roadmap for London defines the key sectors for the capital’s recovery as including the green economy, health and social care, hospitality, digital and the creative industries.

Yet, this list stands at odds with those in the Strategic Priorities Grant administered by the Office for Students (OfS), which was introduced last year by former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to reduce funding for high-cost provision not deemed to be supporting specific labour market needs. These are defined simplistically as being related to medicine, healthcare and STEM and take no account of specific regional nuances, such as those in London where creative skills are highly sought-after to power the capital’s creative economy.

Is the Government serious about its “levelling up” agenda?

If the Government is serious about creating new universities across the regions to deliver on its “levelling up” agenda, as suggested recently by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, then it would first of all do well to consider how to harness the power of existing higher education providers to deliver locally-relevant skills training and boost local economies.

As the largest regional grouping of universities and higher education colleges anywhere in the country, London Higher and its members would provide the perfect testbed for the Government to trial an LLE that really delivers for local people and regional economies. We propose this be done in the following two ways:

First, the LLE should be linked to the Strategic Priorities Grant but, instead of allocating funding to providers based on current crude assumptions of national skills shortages, this should be done at a more bespoke, regional level, linked to local skills plans. This way, local higher education providers offering courses targeted at alleviating regional skills gaps, which have been identified by the relevant local authorities, would receive targeted ‘top up’ funding to incentivise them to offer high-quality provision in the areas of greatest need.

Second, place-based agreements on credit transfer should be developed between further and higher education providers within established regions. Credit recognition could then be trialled between a number of institutions within those regions, such as through a micro-credentials pilot in partnership with groups like London Higher whose members can develop and roll out short courses aligned to labour shortages in the local economy. This would not only help to provide a clearer picture of the barriers around credit recognition between Level 4 to 6 qualifications from different institutions, but it would also make it easier to find practical solutions and workarounds with input from local employers and the relevant regional authorities.

The geography of UK industry is diverse and so too are the skills shortages that go with it. To equip the LLE to tackle skills gaps effectively, the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is and make addressing local skills shortages a strategic priority – not just through warm words but by explicitly linking the LLE to the Strategic Priorities Grant using a laser-like, local lens.

Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer of London Higher and a Commissioner on the Lifelong Education Commission

Read the London Higher Response to Consultation on HE Reform in our 4-part series here:

Read the London Higher Response to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement Consultation in our 3-part series here:

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