One of the flagship education policies announced in the Skills for jobs The white paper is the right to loan for life. First announced in January last year and followed up again with great fanfare in April and May, the LLE is a commitment to provide the equivalent of up to four years of student loans to those looking to “ perfect” later in life.
Yet despite promises that the policy would be fleshed out at the legislative stage, the Post-16 Skills and Education Bill remained very light on details on this front. Instead, subsequent discussions have largely focused on LLE’s ‘equivalent or lesser qualification’ requirement, which states that loan funding can only be used to fund higher level qualifications than those learners already hold.
The ELQ rule has met with considerable opposition in both Houses of Parliament, and with good reason. However, even if this rule were dropped, the scheme currently proposed would do little to improve the existing funding system for adult learners. In particular, there are three key issues with LLE that most discussions on this topic have not addressed.
First, as long as LLE relies on a system of loans rather than grants, it will be difficult to encourage participation in adult skills upgrading among people without assets, savings or other reserves that can serve as a cushion. financial.
The inequality this creates between age groups is clear. An 18-year-old choosing which educational path to take will obviously have a radically different perspective on loan debt than someone in their 30s, 40s, or 50s who decides to take a new direction in their learning.
Indeed, the more we advance in our career, the more we tend to accumulate financial commitments. Making a “career leap” rather than a “career start” is therefore often much more difficult to execute, especially if it means taking on even more debt in your 40s. Worse still, if such a career leap is the result of a voluntary departure rather than a dismissal, it comes with the added blow of sacrificing salary and pension progression from your previous role.
If the government is serious about using lifelong learning to improve the life chances and career prospects of those most in need, loans are simply not enough. In its October 2021 report The road to lifelong learning: reforming the UK skills systemResPublica’s Lifelong Learning Commission argued that grants should be a central part of the financial options available to adult learners.
This is a sensible change which, if accompanied by a means-testing mechanism at the national level, could be used to ensure that subsidies are targeted to the most disadvantaged. These grants could also include maintenance assistance in addition to tuition fees, offsetting the effects of lost income on a learner’s ability to cover living expenses.
At the local level, the government could go even further – giving combined and municipal authorities the power to target full funding to the learners they want to encourage to upskill.
The second problem with LLE is that acquiring the skills necessary to operate at a high level in a new industry can take much longer than four years. This makes the maximum of four years of full-time study that the policy will cover a rather arbitrary limit that does not reflect the typical life situation of adult learners.
This is especially true for courses that are offered in the traditional one-year or multi-year “block” model, such as certificates, diplomas and degrees. Unless a learner is made redundant, they are very unlikely to take such courses mid-career, let alone take a four-year break in case there is a new job. at the end.
Adult learners are also much less likely than 18-21 year olds to get up and move to further their education and training, meaning that attendance at these courses will often depend on geography more than anything else. This will lead many of them to take courses in a progressive “parallel” way, while remaining in their current job.
The Skills Bill contemplates this possibility and commendably focuses on expanding the supply of modular units. However, at such a pace, the time it would take for these piecemeal learners to fully retrain would be prohibitively slow. Four years of modular apprenticeship therefore lend themselves much better to an increase in skills “on the job” than to an intense and long-term retraining necessary for a real professional retraining.
Certainly, increasing the availability of high-quality business skills training would improve an individual’s productivity in their current role, but it would not provide them with the time or support needed to make the transition to a different industry. .
A final related issue here is that the Skills Bill, by defining LLE as a “right”, subscribes to a model of learner choice which is in tension with the government’s need to target retraining and upskilling in particular professions – jobs that are expected to play a key role in tomorrow’s economy,
Simply put, the government needs to decide what types of learners LLE is designed to help. Is it for students already well qualified, established professionals or retirees with a loss of autonomy who are looking to add another feather to their hat? Or is it aimed at precarious workers in cracking industries, for whom reskilling may be the only way to avoid cul-de-sac long-term unemployment?
The idea of a ‘right’ to a loan is strongly biased in favor of the former, evoking the image of learners independently exploring opportunities to develop their interests and abilities. For these, lifelong learning is about developing a well-stocked portfolio of accredited skills. For the people the government wants to improve, it’s more about creating choices where none otherwise exist.
Creating these choices depends on decision makers making decisions about which opportunities they want to make available, which to promote and, most importantly, which to fund. For workers stuck in industries of the past, the priority should be helping them find a niche in tomorrow’s job market. This would be an integral part of a robust, data-driven industrial strategy focused on achieving local regeneration.
What learners can recycle like must also be tied to a careful assessment of which growth industries should be protected and which industries can no longer be saved. When such choices are made, LLE funding becomes less an “entitlement” than an “allowance”.
Upskilling can mean directing individuals to training that prepares them for a 21st economy of the century. If the government does not do this, it risks exacerbating education and skills inequalities by helping those with diverse skills and job security, while abandoning those who are already “left behind”. with few viable options.
Future discussions of LLE will therefore need to answer three questions: (1) what student funding structure will enable learners to take advantage of lifelong learning opportunities? (2) Which model of learning is policy best equipped to support? And finally, (3) who decides which courses adult learners can choose to study?
Answering these questions is essential if the government is to realize its vision of a lifelong learning revolution.
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