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UK Education Sector May Implement Amendments to Student Finance System

The Government of England has planned new lifelong loans as a way to “divert demand” aside from degrees deemed low value, but they face obstacles from the Treasury and a necessary “complete remake of the student finance system”.

However, the Westminster government has initiated legislation with the goal of fully implementing a lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) framework in 2025, enabling adult learners to learn short courses conveniently or expand up to a full degree over time, the sector is still waiting to receive important details on the planned dynamics of the process and implementation.

Most of these details are expected to be released in the new year, as part of the government’s much-delayed higher education policy consultation, which is also anticipated to include strategies for a minimum entry requirement (MER) or possibly some form of student number controls (SNC) to constrain admission to higher education.

The LLE was adopted by the government as a result of the work of Baroness Wolf, a King’s College London professor who is now also a skill and workforce consultant in the Number 10 Policy Unit, a long-standing advocate of continuous learning accounts who seriously thinks that university education advancement has failed to deliver the efficiency gains that governments aspire.

According to Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of the Open University, lifelong loans are part of a policy picture in which the government “wants to divert demand from three-year full-time degree programs in subjects and institutions that are not seen as achieving good outcomes,” where graduates pay back a relatively low proportion of their loans. “There is a view [in government] that these students would benefit more from shorter, more vocational courses in either FE or HE,” he said.

Shorter courses would also be less expensive for the government than full-time residential degrees. Although the Open University appreciated the LLE “as a way to access higher education in England more flexibly and enable learners to receive loan funding over a working lifetime,” said Professor Blackman.

He further added that “there were multifaceted details to iron out”. A qualification has more currency than a module, and the government could achieve its objectives through qualifications rather than what could become a ‘supermarket of modules’.

Attempting to change the current system or amending changes in it, in which student loans are conditional on enrolling for qualification, to one in which students can receive a loan to study for a single module “runs a number of risks, including the sheer cost of changing [Student Loans Company] and provider systems to manage this, as well as the danger that single modules become dead ends for the student,” Blackman warned.

Lifelong loans, according to Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of GuildHE and a former senior civil servant responsible for higher education, will further “require a complete remake of the student finance system.”

Whilst also lifelong learning borrowings have the ability to substantially contribute to workforce development, it is critical not to overestimate the loan appetite for mid-career adults, who will have several spending obligations, added Sir Chris.

The LLE, according to Rachel Hewitt, CEO of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, could address recent steep declines in mature student numbers. However, she added that in order for the system to work, the student loan framework must be revamped in order to ensure that students are fully supported throughout their studies, in terms of both fees and living costs.

Lifelong loans would influence older learners’ behaviour in a fee-based system, citing evidence that the downturn in part-time Higher Education in England was driven by increased fees backed by loans.

Questions on Treasury according to Mr McKenzie will revolve around whether the LLE’s “change, upheaval, and cost” will yield in behavioural interventions that increases skill take-up and effectiveness; the “unknown” fraction of loans that will not be reimbursed due to unforeseen labour market outcomes of manageable bits of education; and dictates the cost of the system if scepticism regarding behavioural change proves incorrect and this truly does enhance loan and learning take-up.

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