From education to employment

Rethinking How We Fund Lifelong Learning

One of the flagship education policies announced in the Government’s Skills for Jobs White Paper is the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

First announced in January last year and trailed again with great fanfare in April and May, the LLE is a pledge to provide the equivalent of up to four years’ worth of student loans for those looking to ‘upskill’ in later life.

Yet, despite promises that the policy would be fleshed out at the legislative stage, the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill has remained markedly light on details on this front.

Instead, subsequent discussions have largely focussed on the LLE’s ‘Equivalent or Lower Qualification’ requirement, which mandates that loan funding can only be used to finance higher-level qualifications than those which learners already hold.

The ELQ rule has met with considerable opposition in both Houses of Parliament, and for good reason. However, even if this rule were dropped, the current proposed scheme does little to improve on the existing system of funding for mature learners.

In particular, there are three key problems with LLE that most discussions on this topic have failed to address:

1. A system of loans rather than grants

Firstly, so long as the LLE relies on a system of loans rather than grants, it will be difficult to encourage uptake in adult skills improvement among people without assets, savings, or other reserves to serve as a financial cushion.

The inequity this creates between age groups is clear. An 18-year-old choosing which educational path to go down will obviously have a drastically different perspective on loan debt versus a person in their 30s, 40s, or 50s deciding to take a new direction in their learning.

This is because the further advanced we are in our career, the more financial commitments we tend to accumulate. Making a ‘career jump’ rather than a ‘career start’ is thus often far more difficult to execute, especially if it means saddling oneself with even more mid-life debt. Even worse, if such a career jump is the result of voluntary severance rather than redundancy, it comes with the additional hit of sacrificing a salary and pension progression from your previous role.

If the Government is serious about using lifelong learning to level up the life chances and career prospects of the worst-off, loans are simply not enough. In its October 2021 report The Pathway to Lifelong Education: Reforming the UK’s Skills System, ResPublica’s Lifelong Education Commission argued that grants must be a central plank of the financial options available to adult learners.

This is a sensible change that, if accompanied with a means-testing mechanism at the national level, could be used to ensure that grants are targeted at the most disadvantaged. Such grants could also include maintenance support on top of tuition, offsetting the effects of lost earnings on a learner’s capacity to cover their living costs.

At the local level, the Government might even take this a step further – by giving combined and mayoral authorities the power to target full funding at learners they want to encourage to upskill.

2. Does not reflect the typical life situation of adult learners

The second problem with the LLE is that gaining the skills needed to function at a high level in a new industry can take much longer than four years. This makes the maximum of four years’ full-time study that the policy will cover a rather arbitrary limit which does not reflect the typical life situation of adult learners.

This is particularly true for courses that are offered under the traditional model of year-long or multi-year ‘blocs’, such as certificates, diplomas, and degrees. Unless a learner is made redundant, they are very unlikely to take on courses of this kind mid-career, let alone take a break for as much as four years on the off-chance there is a new job at the end of it.

Mature learners are also far less likely than 18-21 year olds to up sticks and move elsewhere for further study and training, meaning that the take-up of such courses will often depend on geography more than anything else. This will lead many to instead take courses incrementally ‘on the side’, whilst staying in their existing jobs.

The Skills Bill envisages this possibility, and it has a commendable focus on expanding the offering of modular units. However, at such a pace, the time it would take for such piecemeal learners to completely reskill would be prohibitively slow. Four years of modular learning therefore lends itself far better to ‘on-the-job’ skills improvement than the high-intensity, long-lasting retraining required for a genuine career change.

Certainly, increasing the availability of high-quality business skills training would improve an individual`s productivity in their existing role, but it would not provide the time or support needed for them to transition to a different industry altogether.

3. What kinds of learners is the LLE designed to help?

A final, related issue here is that the Skills Bill, in framing LLE as an ‘entitlement’, subscribes to a model of learner choice which sits in tension with the Government’s need to target retraining and upskilling at particular professions – jobs that are forecast to have a key role in the economy of the future,

Put simply, the Government must decide what kinds of learners the LLE is designed to help. Is it for already well-credentialed students, established professionals, or retirees at a loose end looking to add another feather to their cap? Or is it meant for precarious workers in creaking industries, for whom reskilling may be the only means of avoiding the cul-de-sac of long-term unemployment?

The idea of a loan ‘entitlement’ is skewed heavily towards the former, conjuring up the image of learners autonomously exploring opportunities to develop their interests and abilities. For these, lifelong learning is about growing a well-stocked portfolio of accredited skills. For the people the Government wants to level up, it is more about creating choices where none otherwise exist.

Creating these choices depends on policymakers making decisions about which opportunities they want to make available, which to promote, and above all, which to finance. For workers stuck in industries of the past, the priority should be to help them find a niche in the labour market of the future. This would be part and parcel of a robust, data-driven industrial strategy that is geared towards achieving local regeneration.

What learners can reskill as must also be tied to a careful assessment of which growth industries should be hothoused, and which industries can no longer be saved. When such choices are made, LLE funding becomes less of an ‘entitlement’, and more of an ‘allowance’.

Levelling up skills may mean steering individuals towards training which prepares them for a 21st century economy. If the Government does not do this, it risks exacerbating educational and skills inequality by helping those with diverse skills and job security, whilst abandoning the already ‘left behind’ with few viable options.

Future discussions of LLE therefore have three questions to answer:

  1. Which structure of student finance will empower learners to take advantage of lifelong education opportunities?
  2. Which learning model is the policy best equipped to support? And finally,
  3. Who gets to decide what courses mature learners can choose to study?

Answering these questions is a must if the government is to realise its visions of a lifelong learning revolution.

Dr Marius S. Ostrowski is Senior Public Policy Researcher at ResPublica, leading policy research and development for the Lifelong Education Commission. He is on Twitter as @mariusostrowski.

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