The Lifelong Education Institute welcomes today’s announcement that the Lifelong Learning Act has received royal assent. The newly-rebranded Lifelong Learning Entitlement is a vital intervention in the UK skills and education landscape, and represents a significant advance in the bid to put new training and upskilling opportunities within reach of people at every age and career stage. It lays the groundwork for a comprehensive overhaul of tertiary education funding in the UK, which has to be based on a model of co-investment between Government, businesses, and individual learners.
Many of the details of the Lifelong Learning Act are consistent with the Government’s response to the LLE consultation in March this year. In that respect, the LEI remains convinced that Government can do still more to realise the promise of the LLE. Eligibility for LLE funding must be expanded upwards to cover full course funding from not just levels 4–6, but levels 7 and 8 as well, to fully integrate the UK tertiary education system. Prioritising modular LLE funding for level 4–5 technical courses cannot stand in the way of helping tertiary providers to modularise the widest possible range of their existing teaching provision—and this help has to be phased in much sooner than the 2027–8 academic year. And the minimum funding boundary for LLE funding must be lowered to 10 credits, so that learners can benefit from the growing availability of microcredentials.
All the same, there are signs of gradual progress in the structure for the LLE outlined in the Act. For instance, it is gratifying to see the plans for an online personal LLE account starting to take shape. It is high time that Government shakes off the long shadow cast by the New Labour-era Individual Learning Account scheme, and finally create a transparent portal for learning finance and advice accessible to everyone in the UK. For this to work, introducing a standardised transcript template for all tertiary education providers to record learners’ achievements is a crucial harmonising step. The next stage of this would be to introduce a comprehensive, interoperable credit transfer, accreditation, and quality control framework for full and modular courses to help learners, education providers, and businesses better grasp how much learning each LLE-funded qualification provides.
The LEI also welcomes the Government’s announcement that the Office for Students will be the single designated regulator for all education providers offering LLE-funded courses. This is a key step towards reducing the excessive regulatory burden on Further and Higher Education providers, and providing vital threads of continuity between institutions offering courses at different levels of the tertiary education system. It is also a major move towards simplifying what is often a confusing landscape to navigate for learners and businesses who want to work out which qualifications and providers are best suited to their particular training and upskilling needs.
But the central point of concern in this legislation is that 4 years’ worth of tuition loan funding—currently set at £37,000—plus an unspecified level of maintenance loan funding is still inadequate to incentivising learners to take up the upskilling opportunities available to them. The Government appears to be shifting the goalposts on its pledge to introduce targeted grants for all LLE-funded courses. It is, of course, very welcome that the Act provides for targeted maintenance grants for learners with disabilities or childcare responsibilities. But a central part of the strategy to encourage learners beyond the 16–25 cohort to pursue in-work training and upskilling while already in full- or part-time employment must be a needs-based system of tuition grants as well.
A surprising new addition to the LLE structure is the Government’s indication that it may make available an additional entitlement in cases where learners choose to study priority subjects and longer courses. On the surface, this is a long-overdue recognition that there are certain courses—most obviously medicine—that do not fit neatly into the four-year framework that the Government has imposed. At the same time, it is entirely valid for Government to steer additional funding towards subject areas it considers vital to local or national industrial strategy. But such selective availability threatens to entrench an inequality in access at the heart of UK upskilling policy from the outset. For that reason, the LEI has consistently called for the LLE to be expanded to cover 720 credits’ worth (the equivalent of 6 years) of courses—raising the value to £55,500 per learner regardless of which subjects they choose to study.
Yet the fundamental questions of skills funding in the UK remain an order of magnitude larger than the specific policy solutions offered by the Lifelong Learning Act. Ultimately, this revamped version of the LLE is only one of the pillars on which the funding for lifelong training and upskilling in the UK rests. There is still insufficient continuity and ‘joined-up thinking’ between the LLE (as the latest incarnation of student finance) and the financial commitments that businesses and Government contribute to the overarching upskilling ‘pot’. To name only three, the LLE, the apprenticeship levy (or whatever succeeds it), and the Local Skills Improvement Fund still behave as if they operate in hermetic isolation from one another—rather than acting as three ‘faces’ of a genuine co-investment model for skills.
Overall, the LLE as it has now passed into law represents a forward step, but by no means the end of the journey. Much as with the Skills and Post-16 Education Act that inaugurated the Government’s current lifelong learning agenda, the Lifelong Learning Act must be seen as one of many statements in a much longer conversation around how to support UK learners into refreshing and developing their knowledge and capacities. The question for Government is how it carries forward its momentum into the next stages of this conversation.