The lifelong learning buffet needs nutritional oversight

An edited version of this blog appeared in Times Higher Education on 19th January 2022 (subscription required). 

Reskilling may help workers feed their families – but a plateful of modules may not add up to a square educational meal

In a recent speech the Further and Higher Education Minister Michelle Donelan described the Government’s planned changes in post-16 education as the greatest political endeavour since the creation of the NHS. She may have been overstating the case, but it is fair to say that the creation of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) does have game-changing potential.

The idea is to give everyone – whether they go to university or not – roughly the same access to government-backed loans to pay for education or professional development after they’ve left school. This will, it is hoped, herald a wave of upskilling and reskilling that the economy will need for the multiple challenges of post-Pandemic and Brexit recovery, ‘levelling up’ disadvantaged areas, embracing the so-called Fourth Industrial Age and reaching Net Zero.

Certainly, access to funding is a major obstacle for many who might otherwise make the sacrifices – albeit temporary – in their career and family commitments so they can invest time and effort in learning or training. However, being entitled to plunge oneself into lifelong debt may not be the temptation the Government imagines. Providing access to funding may be a necessary step to change the game, but not a sufficient one.

Some of the other challenges are spelled out in the first report of the Lifelong Education Commission (of which I am proud to serve as a member). Lifelong learning needs to be less like the set menu offered by a traditional three-year residential degree, and more like a finger buffet, where the learner can choose what they want and keep going back for more.

Lifelong learners, it is assumed, are more likely to want shorter courses, perhaps with a bite-size qualification – a ‘microcredential’ – attached. Perhaps they will return to take further modules at different times in their lives at different institutions, sometimes studying full-time, sometimes alongside a job. Sometimes on a campus, sometimes at a night-school, sometimes online.

An advantage of the set menu is that it’s designed the ensure that the learner enjoys a full and nourishing meal – a starter, main and dessert. However, there’s no such guarantee with the buffet. In education terms, traditional degrees move through levels 4 and 5, building to a level 6 qualification, whereas a more piecemeal approach that the learner puts together may be exactly that: pieces of a meal. An abundance of level 4 without ever amounting to more or a disconnected smorgasbord of incoherent bits of learning.

Although we do want to encourage LLEs to be used in a piecemeal way, we must also nudge students towards incremental learning. To make this possible, we need a credit transfer framework – a system of recognising the value of each module of learning and having a common agreement of how much it contributes to achieving a higher qualification, such as a full degree.

Such credit frameworks exist, but they’re a long way off achieving true transferability. Some institutions don’t recognise the equivalence of credits gained at another institution (after all, in these days of marketised education, they would be trading away competitive advantage). But, as often as not, it’s about the type of credit as much as value: universities teaching even the same degree might tackle different concepts at different points in the course. Rightly, they don’t want a student who’s done preliminary learning elsewhere to miss out on something that, on their course, they would have covered in first year.

A game-changing LLE will need to solve this problem. It’s not easy. More than half a century of education policy is strewn with the corpses of previous attempts. What’s more, allowing an ever-more piecemeal approach may make it harder as the bureaucracy involved in granular credit decisions will become exponentially more complex.

On the other hand, greater granularity could help. If many modules can be worth tiny amounts of credit, each ‘microcredential’ becomes less critical to the integrity of a whole qualification. There’s an obvious risk here though: if the availability of funds through the LLE prompts a gold rush of poor-quality, badly regulated mini-courses across the country, they’ll add up to nothing other than a waste of learners’ time and taxpayers’ money.

Someone needs to decide whether courses – long or short, large or small – meet the standard to qualify for LLE funding. There are many candidates: the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, the Office for Students, or perhaps a special new body. Whoever ends up with this task will necessarily be involved in an exercise that assesses the value of courses. While they’re at it, I suggest they might as well award a credit score as part of the assessment and assume regulatory control of the credit transfer framework.

That way learners can build a portfolio of credentials stored and certified by the regulator, with a view to perhaps one day, bundling them as a level 6 qualification or even higher.

It is important that learners should be able to bundle. Apart from being a motivational goal (vital for lifelong learners), a portfolio of credentials doesn’t have the same portability as a degree when it comes to getting a job – even if they amount to the same set of skills and knowledge. Recent research has highlighted the extent to which degrees act as a signal of a level reached rather than merely an accumulation of learning.

But bundling should not be routine: not all credits are equal. The buffet plate may be full, but it may still not be a square meal. As a learner’s credits approach 360 credits (the usual value of a bachelors degree), they should be able to opt for a ‘capstone’ module, available only from institutions that have their own degree-awarding powers. Like the capstone lintels at Stonehenge, a capstone module connects, completes and consolidates the student’s learning. They should assess prior learning, encourage reflection and support application of the learning – basically, wrap up prior learning into the parcel of a recognised qualification.

But what if the modules are too scattered to be packaged as a degree in any particular subject? That may not bother employers. For most graduate roles, the subject studied is largely irrelevant. I propose that credits could be bundled as a General Degree – again with a capstone module to draw the disparate parts into a coherent whole of varied knowledge and transferrable and specific skills. 

If we’re serious about game-changing lifelong learning, we need to apply Fourth Industrial Age thinking to education. We need to hand over control to individuals to shape the product they want and access it at their convenience. And the government’s role is to ensure the interests of learners and of wider society are protected.

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  1. This is interesting stuff. It’s a curious thing, this gap left between the publication of the skills bill (with the promise of detailed rules on how the LLE will work) to the promise that a consultation is coming soon.

    In my mind, I want to split the things that a provider might do and the regulations the DfE will need to write.

    We have some models of open qualification frameworks – I’m thinking, say, of the Oxford Continuing Education Cert HE. This provides a framework for cognate work to be gathered in – the current rules need students to be aiming for a qualification and this gives a structure, with what the the Americans would recognised as distribution/concentration rules. As its all L4, it does need progression. If students are going to accumulate 360 credits in the LLE, then any qualification offered is going to need to match the qualifications framework . A bachelors degree will need the required amount of L6 – otherwise a student with 360 credits at L4 is just going to get three CertHEs.
    That’s then where the government comes in. Given the stuff about outcomes, does it really want to loan money to take three CertHEs? Is it going to legislate for progression? Will it remove the ELQ rule? Will it allow credit that isn’t part of a degree? (that’s the only bit that’s currently in the Skills Bill). That would seem to mean only providers with DAP or programmes approved through validation/franchise can offer LLE approved courses. While a provider might be able to ‘control’ what a student studies – is the LLE going to allow concurrent study at different providers or on different courses? Developing the ELQ argument, does the government mind if I take an Introduction to Data Analysis module twice? Can I take it at two different providers? And, because you can always push these things to absurdity – what it I took such a module 20 times sequentially and what it if took it 20 times at the same time?

    The LLE rules are going to be fascinating…

    1. Author

      Thanks, Mike. I agree entirely that forging the rules will be a tough job. The question will be whether it can be done within the timeframe of the political opportunity.
      It may end up falling into the category of policies that are good ideas, but just too complicated to deliver within the lifetime of any government (let alone a minister).
      Given that I’m astonished (and impressed) that the Treasury let DfE make promises to fund billions of pounds of loans that will never be repaid in full (at the same time as arguing over a greater claw-back of student loans), the political road for LLE may be very rocky.

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