Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 65

Submission from the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning

  1.  The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning has grave concerns not only about the underlying assumptions of the ELQs policy but also about the unintended consequences resulting from its introduction. The agenda underlying the policy, to provide for those who have not yet had the benefit of higher education study, is laudable in itself, but the proposals for implementation will impede this aim. (paragraphs 10-14)

  2.  The policy fails to recognise the "shelf life" or obsolescence of qualifications and the rapid changes in skills needed in an information age, depriving second time learners of opportunities to re-skill at a time when 70% of the 2020 workforce is already in employment. It is a policy which will apply to a diverse range of HE provision, including short training courses, not only second degrees. (12, 15, 28)

  3.  It appears to attack the long-established concept of public services provision on the basis of need, and introduces the concept of one-chance-only in relation to a crucial public good. If the policy is to limit public funding entitlement to same level HE experience then any reduction in funding should be focused on full-time study. That is where the bulk of the existing subsidy is made, through grants, loans, and funded places. (24)

  4.  The cost of funding a further 20,000 first degree students, will be the denial of funding for up to 200,000, mainly part-time, students, who are re-skilling or updating their qualifications in order to benefit both themselves, their families, and the economy.[55] (25—27)

  5.  Those universities which are working most effectively to implement Government agendas of lifelong learning and skills for employment will be among those most badly hit by these proposals. In practice, provision of this type attracts a mix of first time entrants and those who have already benefited from higher education, and that mix has educational benefits for the students, creates a critical mass for the programmes, and provides financial viability. (13-15, 28-29)

  6.  It will disproportionately increase bureaucracy. There would be administratively simpler, fairer and a more effective way to save £100 million if a simple across-the-board efficiency gain was applied to the whole of the HE sector. This would ensure that those universities which are trying to respond to Government agendas will not be disproportionately hit and would ensure that all universities will thereby contribute to the up-skilling agenda. (30-31)

  7.  It will be perverse in its application:

    —  EU students will benefit but UK ones will not.

    —  Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will not be affected but England will, increasing further the existing disparities for HE support between constituencies of the UK. (16)

  8.  UALL strongly recommends that the policy is: (para. 32)

    —  deferred until the 2009 Fees Commission review, or until the Select Committee reports;

    —  only applied to those whose qualifications are of less than five years standing;

    —  applied to same level full-time study only, and exempts part-time study; and

    —  funded by an across-the board HE sector efficiency gain.


  9.  The Universities Association for Lifelong Learning is a long-established organisation, dating from the early 1950s, representing academic and administrative staff who work with part-time and mature students in higher education, in over a hundred universities in the UK. The organisation has professional networks which include, inter alia, continuing professional development for managers, and work-based learning. Its members are opposed to the proposed policy on ELQs, as it currently stands, believing it to be flawed and restrictive, both in concept and in practical implementation.


  10.  The impact of the policy, and the unintended consequences that follow from it, fly in the face of Government policies on employability, social cohesion and civic engagement, and, most damagingly for institutions and individuals alike, the widening participation agenda. In contrast to the ELQ policy, the Prime Minister stated that the starkest challenge is to provide "not one chance but second, third, fourth and lifelong chances" in a society that places "the highest possible cultural value upon learning".

  11.  Removing funding from those undertaking ELQ courses is not the solution: it will damage initiatives to improve the country's level of vocational skills, economic regeneration, and the general health and well-being of the population.

  12.  The policy falls into the trap of addressing up-skilling needs whilst failing to recognize the importance of re-skilling in a dynamic economy. It assumes first time learning is sufficient for life. The ELQ policy fails to recognise the "shelf life" or obsolescence of qualifications and the rapid changes in skills needed in the information age, and will deprive many second time learners of opportunities needed to re-skill at a time when 70% of the 2020 workforce is already in employment.

  13.  Allowing, as an exception to the ruling, those courses carrying employer co-funding is likely to have limited applicability. Employer contributions to co-funding level 3 students may work well in regions of the UK where large corporate or industrial bodies are willing, and can afford, to contribute funding to employees' education. It will not work in areas where there is a dearth of such employers, and the SMEs and micro-businesses operating in economically disadvantaged regions cannot afford contributions either in funding or in time.

  14.  The proposal fails to recognise the reality of people's lives in a rapidly-changing economic/technological world. Given the diversity of motivations and circumstances under which people choose to take a second qualification, any damage done to the re-skilling and continuing professional development will be difficult to gauge in advance: it is likely only to become apparent some years down the line when we discover shortages in skilled personnel. Furthermore the attempt to mitigate the worst effects of the policy solely though exemptions is likely to create anomalies within a changing economy.

  15.  It is both commonplace and entirely proper to gain an equivalent or lower qualification. For example:

    —  Mid-career graduates will need, and indeed should be encouraged, to undertake intensive updating courses.

    —  Higher skills shortages often have to be addressed through conversion courses/programmes to enable movement into industries, eg chemical process industries, and commerce.

    —  Many adults are graduates seeking to re-skill themselves for a career change.

    —  Large numbers of retired students in University lifelong learning centres are graduates. After a lifetime of work, and paying taxes, they can seize the chance to pursue study for personal interest, but there are significant economic and community too. They will be healthier, and less likely to be a burden on health or social services budgets, more likely to work voluntarily for the public good, and to be a positive influence on younger family members' attitudes to education.

  16.  It should be noted that this proposal will not apply to adults in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, thereby creating further higher education inequalities between the nations which make up the United Kingdom.


  17.  The Fees Commission review will scrutinise funding for HE students next year (2009). Could not this policy be deferred and included within the purview of that review? It would allow more time to appraise the likely impact of the policy and place it in the context of the totality of future funding arrangements.

  18.  At the very least could not the introduction of the policy be deferred until the report of the Select Committee, which could be asked to produce its deliberations as a matter of urgency?


  19.  The policy is being introduced as a "fait accompli" and the consultation relates only to its implementation. The speed with which the policy will be implemented—from Autumn 2008—means that Universities are unable to plan for it with due care. Institutions still await definitive advice as to which students will be penalized by the policy but will be expected to implement the proposal shortly.

  20.  The speed with which the proposal is to be implemented will cause problems for universities. The volume of employer co-funded and foundation degree programmes, which will be needed to make up for the shortfall in funding, cannot be introduced at a speed which will correlate with the timing of the introduction of this policy.


  21.  Statistical analysis of which academic/discipline fields will be hit show a variation between universities, but some training fields which have currently been identified are:

    —  some professions allied to medicine, eg pharmacy;

    —  business education;

    —  teacher training for those entering post 18 teaching;

    —  IT and computing;

    —  public sector fields, eg police force, and social work training;

    —  professional retraining; and

    —  culture and creative sector, vital for regional economic regeneration.

  22.  While we entirely support the notion of co-funding by employers we know that in some skill sectors and occupational fields, and some geographical areas of the country, this culture change will take time. For some areas with few large corporate employers, and many more SMEs and micro-businesses it will be difficult to generate co-funding for programmes. The voluntary and public sector will have difficulty in co-funding without additional training budgets.


  23.  No impact analysis of the policy appears to have been taken, although HEFCE have acknowledged that part-time students will be disproportionately affected.

  24.  However, the effect of the introduction of the ELQs ruling will mean that a third funding strike, or triple whammy, will disproportionately harm part-time students. of the three areas of financial support for students—loans for fees, direct financial support, and funding—part-time students are already disadvantaged by the first two.

    (i)  When the new loan support system for HE students was introduced this was restricted to full-time students only. While the government did recently introduce the welcome provision of some support for those part-timers studying 50% of a full time course, this did not affect the majority of part-time HE students.

    (ii)  With the introduction of top-up fees, the fee levels for part-time students, though unregulated, inevitably have risen towards pro-rata against full-time fees, with the result that part-timers had to pay large fee increases but without access to the degree of financial support available to full-timers.

    (iii)  HEFCE funding for programmes was the one leg of financial support for students which did not discriminate against part-time or lifelong learning students. With the introduction of the ELQs ruling, such funding will be removed for ELQs students, the majority of whom will be part-time.

    This policy threatens 20% of part-time study compared with 2% of full-time study, but the former is the route which Leitch recognizes will spearhead growth in skills in the workforce by the 2020 target date.

  25.  Continuing Education departments within the pre-92 HEIs, both Russell Group and civics, and analogous units within the post-92 new universities are citing figures which indicate that anything from 25—75% of their student populations will be hit by the ELQs ruling.

  26.  Case studies of students from our member HEIs are already demonstrating that the following groups will be disproportionately disadvantaged:

    —  women returning to employment, having brought up children after graduating many years before. In a number of our member HEIs the percentage of female students who would be hit by the ELQs ruling ranges from 58-65%;

    —  learners in small or rural communities where the choice of provision is limited;

    —  the disabled;

    —  all those wishing to update the currency of their skills training and knowledge of developments in their vocational fields;

    —  older learners wishing to keep active, healthy and be contributors to their communities; and

    —  carers returning to the employment market;

    all these stand to lose disproportionately from these proposals.

  27.  The potential damage to these and other cohorts of learners, and to universities and colleges providing for them, poses a very serious threat. The following examples are illustrative of the type of students who would no longer be funded to undertake HE level study, with obvious consequences for the individuals, their families and the economy.

    (i)  Susan, age 39, currently unemployed single parent with two children:

    —  gained a BA degree in English at 21;

    —  wants to rejoin the labour market now the children are both at school;

    —  wishes to study a vocational BA programme part-time at her local University.

    —  ELQ—Cannot be funded by HEFCE

    (ii)  Ian, age 51, currently working in the private sector:

    —  gained a MSC in Business Management aged 35;

    —  wants to "change direction" and "put something back" into the community;

    —  wishes to retrain as a youth worker to work with disaffected Muslim youths.

    —  ELQ—Cannot be funded by HEFCE

    (iii)  Rita, age 47, long-term unemployed due to disability sustained in the workplace; and currently volunteering in a local voluntary organization:

    —  gained a BA through the OU in her 30s;

    —  would like a qualification in community development, with the aim of paid employment using the skills and knowledge gained through volunteering;

    —  wishes to study for a BA in community development.

    —  ELQ—Cannot be funded by HEFCE

    (iv)  Mary, age 44, currently working in Tesco on the checkout, with a history of mental health difficulties resulting in a much disrupted experience of employment:

    —  gained a BA in History aged 21;

    —  wants a vocational qualification in business studies to improve her employment prospects and to encourage her children to see "you don't have to end up in Tesco's";

    —  her employer is not interested in financing her study as she clearly wishes to improve her opportunities to leave the company.

    —  ELQ—Cannot be funded by HEFCE

    (v)  Fred, age 52, made redundant and finding it impossible to gain employment in an industry that no longer needs his skills; has lost confidence and motivation:

    —  gained an HND in electrical engineering aged 20;

    —  wants to reskill in ICT;

    —  wishes to study for a degree in computer technologies and artificial intelligence.

    —  ELQ—Cannot be funded by HEFCE


  28.  It is clear that those institutions which have enthusiastically embraced the Government's agendas of lifelong learning and higher skills for employment will be among those most badly hit by this proposal, and that the provision of such opportunities will be undermined. In practice, provision of this type attracts a mix of first time entrants and those who have already benefited from higher education. If some students can no longer be funded for this provision then demand will be adversely affected and some courses will have to close because of a dearth of a critical mass of students for that course. For example, a course normally enrolling fifteen students will not run if six are unfunded owing to ELQ changes, however deserving the remaining nine learners may be. The resulting major reduction in provision will seriously damage the infrastructure necessary to a lifelong learning culture, and in particular, to part-time students. It carries too many risks both to the economic regeneration of the country and to the general well-being of the adult population.

  29.  While the proposals for planned allocations for part-time study are to be welcomed, the proposed re-allocation of £20 million is unlikely to be sufficient to compensate for the withdrawal of funding.

  30.  The practical implementation of this policy will create a major bureaucratic burden which would negate many of the benefits of reduced regulation achieved in recent years, as promoted by the Higher Education Regulations Review Group (HERRG). There will be a need to undertake further checks on the qualifications of students, beyond what is currently needed for admissions purposes, and to ensure that they are correctly interpreted and accurately recorded. In particular, we believe that:

    —  non-disclosure of qualifications will become a significant issue. If students choose not to disclose their previous qualification levels universities currently have no way of making them do so. institutions will need good practice guidance as to how far they are expected to probe an applicant's entry qualifications; and

    —  institutions will need access to a central database of current and past qualifications and their equivalences, including European as well as UK qualifications, to enable the policy to be implemented equitably;

  31.  In order to raise the funding for the Government's up-skilling agenda, it would be an administratively simpler, fairer and more effective way to save £100 million if a simple across-the-board efficiency gain was applied to the whole of the HE sector.


  32.  UALL would urge the Select Committee to recommend that the policy is:

    —  deferred until the 2009 Fees Commission review, or at least until the Select Committee has reported on its inquiries;

    —  only applied to people who are graduates of less than five years standing. It should be confined to those whose qualifications were awarded less than five years previously. After that period beyond graduation, people should be entitled to a supported PT place in HE;

    —  applied to same level full-time study only, and exempts part-time study. If the policy is to limit public funding entitlement to one HE experience then this should be focused on FT. That is where the bulk of the subsidy is made, through grants, loans, funded places; and

    —  funded by an across-the board HE sector efficiency gain. It disproportionately affects those universities which are succeeding in engaging employers, particularly through part-time provision. Ensure that all universities will contribute to the up-skilling of those students identified by Government.

January 2008

55   estimate based on UUK figures for 2005-06 showing the 108% increase over the previous decade of the numbers of PT students in HE as opposed to the 27% increase in FT students. Back

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