‘We need further support from government to help us support its aims’: Comment from UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton, on ResPublica’s report on lifelong learning

Posted on: 4 October, 2021

Public policy thinktank, ResPublica’s Lifelong Education Commission published its report entitled ‘The Pathway to Lifelong Learning: Reforming the UK’s Skills System’ last week. Chaired by the former UK minister for universities, science, research & innovation, Chris Skidmore, the research included contributions from experts across higher education, including UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton.

Here, to coincide with the launch event of the report in Manchester today, Ashley shares his thoughts on lifelong learning and what needs to be done to help education providers and government achieve their aims…

The intention is for the commission to influence government and the publication of the ResPublica report is a step in the right direction. It’s an opening gambit which will hopefully lead to further discussion and actions being taken to prioritise and enable lifelong learning. However, with a number of agendas (student loan repayment, Augar review response, legislative changes) yet to reach a conclusion, this is likely to be a frustratingly slow burn.

UCEM’s involvement is important, as for over a century we have been doing so many of the things which are necessary to support students of all ages and backgrounds to study flexibly – and so our experience in this regard is highly valuable. Studying with us is flexible and ‘lifelong’ already. It’s not simply a case of following a linear three-year path to gain an undergraduate degree. Of course, you can follow that route with us if you choose to, but you can also study with us part-time, at whatever pace you decide, and fit your studies around your work and personal commitments. There are also options to conveniently pause your studies at any point, should your circumstances change. One statistic which never ceases to amaze me is the fact that in excess of 95% of UCEM students are in full-time employment.

This flexible approach is also replicated in the way you pay your fees to study on our programmes. You can pay in instalments, or use student loans and enhanced learning credits (ELCAS), or come through the degree apprenticeship route, or your company can pay on your behalf.

Our flexibility enables students at any stage of their career to find an option which suits them. Lifelong learning, therefore, is totally consistent with what we do and have always done.

The government wants more vocational and technical education to equip the UK workforce with the skills needed to bolster the economy. It also wishes to ‘level up’ so communities across the nation thrive and are not left behind by wealthier neighbours. UCEM’s programmes are vocational, technical and support the built environment. They are all formally accredited by the relevant professional bodies, and we offer degree-level apprenticeships to help more people access work in the sector. We work closely with employers to ensure our offer aligns fully with the skills required to pursue a successful career in the various built environment disciplines. In addition to this, you can study with us from any location across the UK (or indeed the world). What the government is calling for is what we already do.

We are well positioned, therefore, to pass comment on what can be done to help the government with its aims more widely and I hope the commission can open up that dialogue.

There is more which can be done quickly and easily to support lifelong learning, particularly on the themes of integration and liberalisation and I set out just three, simple thoughts on these below.

Integration and liberalisation

  • In order to truly offer student flexibility and choice, the system of higher education needs to become far more integrated. We can no longer rely on intra-institutional, monolithic programmes of study. Flexibility will require a robust and easy means of mixing and matching credits across multiple institutions to allow students to choose what, when and where they study, as well as a willingness from institutions to work much more closely together in both programme design and delivery in order to adequately satisfy the demand from both students and industry.


  • Currently, the model for apprenticeships sits almost entirely outside of conventional HE thinking, with different and unique rules applied to its provision, as well as the monitoring, funding and regulation being carried out by entirely separate bodies. This requires very substantial rework by institutions who offer degree apprenticeships. Flexibility is sadly lacking. For example, there is almost no means for an apprentice or employer to choose to jointly fund study – it’s either one way (the levy) or the other (student-funded). Nor is there any means for apprentices to substantially change the pace of their studies to match better with the volume of their work or career path. Furthermore, the funding model is punitive and disincentivising for HE providers (compared to traditional funding models). Added to which, the apprenticeship agenda still seems to be less well supported and promoted within Higher Education, and remains in the view of many a distinctly less prestigious option. I would argue that better integration would grow this provision better and faster, and therefore play a significantly greater part in the suite of lifelong learning solutions which will be needed if the policy is to succeed.


  • There is also a lot of wasted and inaccessible money within the apprenticeship levy model. In many cases, organisations who pay the levy are simply unable to use anywhere close to all of their funds due to shortages of both apprentices and appropriate programme provision. This seems at odds with the assertion that we have vocational skills shortages. It seems, therefore, that there is an opportunity to look at how organisations can spend the levy more easily and more widely on relevant programmes of study, given the very apparent need for more vocational qualifications. We need more skilled workers, and more liberal use of the apprenticeship levy (perhaps renamed as the vocational skills levy?) could be a great way to achieve this.

With a bit more listening and support from the government, some tweaks to the mechanisms which are already in place would accelerate lifelong learning in the UK, allowing it to flourish and realise its important role in meaningfully contributing to economic growth and wider society.