UCEM Vice Chancellor addresses Westminster Higher Education conference

Posted on: 28 May, 2024

Addressing the Westminster Higher Education Forum’s virtual ‘Next Steps for Lifelong Learning Entitlement’ conference, UCEM Vice Chancellor Ashley Wheaton outlined some of the challenges facing the introduction of the ‘Lifelong Learning Entitlement’ (LLE).

The LLE is a UK government scheme to encourage retraining and upskilling across a person’s life, which is seen as vital to meet the needs of an economy that is rapidly changing in the face of technologies such as AI.

Starting in 2026, the LLE will provide all prospective learners with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use up to the age of 60. The entitlement is currently being set at £37,000 and would, in essence, be a ‘pot of loanable money’ accessible via an online account.

The hope is that this might foster a cultural shift away from the current model, whereby most people study a long-form qualification (often an undergraduate degree) in one go, normally when they are younger, before entering the workplace and never undertaking academic study again. Instead, by introducing the LLE, the Government hopes that people will spread their study more evenly across their working lives.

This will require post-18 education to be deliverable in shorter, more modular or ‘bite-sized’ chunks, rather than purely by multi-year courses and generally be a more flexible system for learners who, under the world envisaged by the LLE, will likely be returning to study whilst working.

Too much in one sitting?

Ashley’s contributions covered twelve areas, many of which delved into the technicalities of the LLE, but one of the key takeaways was around the minimum credit values of modules.

To be eligible for LLE funding, it is currently proposed that a module must have a minimum size of 30 credits (for context, a full-time academic year for an undergraduate degree generally comprises 120 credits).

UCEM is acutely aware of the significant resources associated with 30 credit modules, both for the provider and students. Our learners will often be sacrificing their evenings and weekends to hit the circa 300 hours of study required for a 30-credit module.

Ashley argued that a 30-credit minimum might be too excessive for a system that is meant to be utilised by those working alongside studying and who may just be looking for some relatively concise upskilling, especially if they have been away from the rigours of academic study for a long period.

Accordingly, he advocated for a lower minimum credit value for LLE modules, a view also advanced by the Quality Assurance Agency, which suggested a 10-credit minimum.

These more digestible modules could also enable educators to design bespoke modules in collaboration with stakeholders such as employers and industry bodies which directly address specific skills gaps, are tailored to sectoral needs and can adapt more quickly to changing economies.

Accrediting lifelong learning

This led Ashley to his next key point, the importance of ensuring more modular learning maintains the confidence of groups such as professional bodies and regulators.

Whilst UCEM’s courses are academically based, all of our bachelors and the majority of our masters level programmes are formally accredited by a relevant professional body (e.g. Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Chartered Institute of Building etc).

We know that these accreditations are vital to our students in maintaining the vocational and career relevance of our programmes. It might be that built environment professional bodies would be open to seeing their schemes of academic learning become more modularised, but there is no guarantee of that currently, which might leave some LLE modules uncreditable. He also wondered whether this would also be true for other industries and professions, which could pose a serious challenge to the uptake of the LLE.

Reforms for effective lifelong learning

Ashley highlighted some of the enabling reforms needed to higher education’s underpinning structures if LLE is to be successful.

For example, both the current tuition fee loan system and higher education regulation are based on people studying qualifications in a relatively short timeframe, rather than across a more than 40-year period.

Will systems be able to track several smaller loans across a long period and how will this affect repayment? Similarly, the current regulation of universities is based on defined measures such as ‘course completion rates’ which would seem to contradict the desire for learning to become lifelong.

Ashley thought that such issues were, ultimately, solvable but was pleased that the LLE was being rolled out gradually, to allow for adjustments to supporting systems to be made carefully,

Reflecting on his contributions at the conference, Ashley said,

 “Lifelong learning is what UCEM has done for over a century and resonates with our aim of providing flexible programmes that fit with life and career goals at every stage, creating a better built environment shaped with people in mind.

95% of our students are in full-time employment and study with us part-time to fit their studies around work, family and personal commitments. There are also options to ‘hop on and off’ by pausing studying at any point.

This flexibility is facilitated by our 100% modular course structure, meaning we are very familiar with what it takes to deliver modular learning to those looking to improve their relevant professional knowledge during their careers.

I was, therefore, delighted to share some of UCEM’s insights on what issues would need to be overcome if the Lifelong Learning Entitlement is to achieve its goal of supporting access to technical and professional education at any stage of a person’s working life.”