This month has seen the publication of the evaluation of the OfS Short Course trial by the Careers Research & Advisory Centre (CRAC). Please don’t hold your breath! The results are underwhelming to say the least, and it’s fair to say the exercise has failed to provide any reliable answers to the many questions about how – and if – the Lifelong Learning Entitlement policy is going to work.
One of the main aims of the OfS pilot was to “provide further understanding about short course provision and participation, ahead of the LLE planned for 2025” (now pushed back to 2027).
It didn’t. The plan was for 22 providers to offer a total of 96 new short courses enrolling over 2,000 students. In the event, only 17 courses at 10 providers were delivered during 2022/23 with a total of – wait for it – 125 enrolments. Over half the courses enrolled five or fewer students. What’s more, two institutions waived course fees and at two others all the students were members of staff, so less than half the participants actually paid any fees. Only 41 applicants applied for and obtained the new bespoke student loan.
In short, the £2m programme failed to provide any evidence of the potential demand for short courses (minimum 30 credits), or of the impact of the new student loan product on levels of participation.
The pilot threw up a predictable range of problems. Employers questioned whether a 13 week course should be described as a short course, and wanted shorter, more flexible programmes. Many universities struggled under time pressure to adapt their course approval and admissions processes, designed for three year degrees, to short programmes. The lack of any national framework for credit transfer and accumulation made it difficult to give prospective students any assurance about the value of the courses they were taking as a building block towards future degree qualifications.
Reading between the diplomatic language of the report, it’s clear that this experiment was poorly designed, rushed, and launched too late in the academic year. It failed to give institutions enough time to market the new courses properly or get staffing and other resources in place early enough.
This is particularly disappointing from a Lifelong Education Institute perspective, as we are enthusiastic supporters of the LLE as vital route to opening up higher education to adult learners, particularly those in work. But we have repeatedly warned that there are flaws in the way in which the current policy is designed, and the OfS trial reinforces our concerns.
We don’t think it’s a good idea to rely solely on student loans for adult learners and advocate an element of direct grant. We think 30 credits is too much for short courses and would prefer a model based on 10 credits as a minimum. And we agree with CRAC’s view that it’s essential to make progress on a credit transfer system if the LLE is to work. Indeed, in our view all the recommendations in this report need to be accepted and urgently acted on, as do those in the report we produced in 2022 in partnership with Staffordshire University, “The Role of Microcredentials in Modular Learning”.
If we were marking the OfS on this exercise, we’d be saying “must do better”. They, and the DfE, need to do a lot more thinking and planning if the LLE is not going to be a damp squib.