Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Written evidence submitted by the Open University [1] (SPEB05)

   

Public Bill Committee: Skills and Post-16 Education Bill

Executive Summary

1. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill is a key opportunity to reverse the huge decline in the number of adults accessing higher education in England over the last decade. It is essential that this is not missed.

2. Proposals to make student loans available for studying a single module are welcome but need to go further. The detailed policy design of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) will be critical to its success but this detail does not yet exist.

3. The quality assessment of student outcomes needs to reflect the different nature of part-time and modular learning for mature students.

4. The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Our mission is to make learning accessible to all, and to date we have helped over 2 million students worldwide to realise their ambitions. The OU is one of the biggest universities in every single part of the country and is, for example, one of the five biggest providers of higher education in over 90% of constituencies in England. [2]

Introduction

5. The OU strongly supports the objectives of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to "make it easier for adults and young people to study more flexibly allowing them to space out their studies, transfer credits between institutions and take up more part-time study". [3]

6. There is a huge opportunity – if the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) is designed well – for it to support the UK Government’s levelling up aspirations by revitalising flexible higher education and reversing the huge decline in the number of adults in England aged 21 and over accessing undergraduate higher education.

7. As set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the LLE is "a new transformative funding provision, enabling people to access four years’ worth of student loan funding across further and higher education providers throughout their lifetime". [4]

8. However, we would urge the Public Bill Committee to explore the specific design features of the LLE and how it will work in practice as this will be critical to its success. Much remains undecided and key policy questions are yet to be answered.

9. In particular, the OU is concerned that the Bill presents the LLE as a "bolt on" rather than a fundamental reform to the current funding system. We would like to see a system that provides equal access and support for learners regardless of their mode of study and where their learning takes place.

10. To support this, it would be better to create a unified funding system that applies to all modes of study, whereas the Bill as drafted would establish three separate funding systems: one for full-time students, one for part-time students and one for those who study module-by-module.

11. It is also important that the other parts of the Bill relating to quality assessment in higher education, local skills improvement plans, and technical education qualifications are supportive of lifelong learning.

12. Going beyond the Bill, wider action is also required to address the other barriers to flexible lifelong learning such as the impact that the huge increase in the cost of study following the 2012 student finance reforms in England has had in deterring debt averse mature learners and discouraging co-funding from employers.

Background: Lifelong learning in England

13. Only half as many adults aged 21 and over are accessing undergraduate higher education compared to a decade ago, with 1.3 million "lost learners" over that time period. [5]

14. This has led to a 25% fall in the total number of people in England of all ages accessing undergraduate higher education over the last decade. This has hit some parts of the country particularly hard. For example, there has been a 40% fall in higher education participation in the North East and a 32% fall in the North West and in Yorkshire and the Humber. Two thirds of the 66 Parliamentary constituencies in England which saw a decline in higher education participation of more than 40 per cent are in these three regions. [6]

15. This has been driven by a huge decline in part-time higher education – there are 70 per cent fewer new part-time undergraduate entrants accessing HE every year than a decade ago. [7] This decline was driven by the 2012 student funding reforms in England, which led to a huge increase in the cost of study and also abolished the means-tested part-time fee grant which had previously exempted low-income part-time students from paying any tuition fees.

16. As the UK Government has acknowledged, it is essential that this decline is reversed. The pandemic has accelerated several consumer and technological trends which will have a significant long-term impact on the structure of the UK economy, adding to the impact of the substantial changes in the UK’s trading relationship with the EU following the end of the Brexit transition period. There is a risk of significant labour market difficulties and associated scarring effects as the economy adjusts to these changes which could have long-term adverse consequences for affected individuals and communities.

17. Lifelong learning, including at higher levels, will be crucial in reducing and mitigating these scarring effects by helping people upskill, reskill and retrain to allow them to adapt to changes in work and, where necessary, to move between industrial sectors and occupations in response to structural economic changes. Part-time higher education remains a very cost-effective way to study, for the student and for the Treasury.

18. The Bill is a massive opportunity to address the decline in lifelong learning. The Prime Minister has claimed that: "These new laws are the rocket fuel that we need to level up this country and ensure equal opportunities for all. I’m revolutionising the system so that we can move past the outdated notion that there is only one route up the career ladder and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to retrain or upskill at any point in their lives". [8]

Recommendations – In order of the Bill’s current draft

Education and training for local needs (Part 1, Chapter 1)

19. Clauses 1-4 of the Bill sets out the legislative framework for local skills improvement plans.

20. The OU has students in every single local area of the country and is, for example, one of the five biggest providers in 90 per cent of Parliamentary constituencies in England and is particularly important for disadvantaged learners and in higher education "cold spots" where there is limited face-to-face provision. We are also the largest higher education provider in 63 (20%) of the 314 English local authorities. [9]

21. It is important that the legislation ensures that the role in the local skills ecosystem played by providers without a local bricks-and-mortar presence in a particular area is taken into account in local skills improvement plans.

Technical education qualifications (Part 1, Chapter 2)

22. Clauses 6-13 of the Bill set out the regulatory framework for technical education qualifications. The focus on higher technical qualifications is welcome but, more widely, this needs to be part of a common framework including degree and modular study. These are too siloed at the moment.

23. The OU plays a significant role in higher-level technical education. We are, for example, the largest provider of degree apprenticeships in England and one in four Registered Nurse Degree Apprentices study at the OU. [10] The majority of our programmes are ‘open entry’ – meaning learners do not need a prior qualification to study with the OU – which helps open up apprenticeships to those who may not have previously had the opportunity to study and gain a higher-level qualification. In total, almost half (48%) of OU apprentices come from a disadvantaged background, either living in a low participation area, with a disability, or no A Levels. 

24. The OU fully supports apprenticeships to remain ‘all-age and all-stage’. In a survey of over 600 large and small employers in England commissioned by The Open University, in association with The 5% Club for National Apprenticeship Week 2021, 82% of employers said that it is important that apprenticeships are available for all ages, and 82% reported that apprenticeships are important at all Levels. [11]

25. We also work closely with further education colleges to support the delivery of their technical education offers. For example, we are working with Milton Keynes College Group on HE pathways for Engineering, Digital and Public Health to support a higher education offer that serves the local region. [12]

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) (Part 1, Chapter 3)

26. Clauses 15 and 16 of the Bill begin to develop the regulatory framework for the LLE by modifying existing legislation to also cover modular study and gives the Secretary of State the power to set a maximum lifetime limit on student support. The government has said that further primary legislation relating to the LLE will be brought forward after public consultation.

27. The LLE could have a significant role to play in revitalising flexible higher education. It could help more adults upskill and drive a shift from the current full-time three-year residential model of higher education towards lifelong learning and shorter courses more focused on the UK’s economic requirement.

28. However, we are disappointed at the lack of detail being shared about its design at this stage. The specific details about how the LLE will work in practice will be crucial in determining whether it will be able to achieve the UK Government’s objectives. It is very difficult to evaluate how effective the Bill will be without this further detail.

29. The LLE as presented in the Bill is a "bolt on" rather than a fundamental change. The Bill creates a separate funding system for modular study – meaning that there will be three separate higher education funding systems covering full-time study, part-time study and modular study – leaving open the possibility that any modular funding offer could be limited. A more ambitious reform would be to create a unified funding system that does not distinguish between different modes of study and provides equal access and support for learners regardless of where learning takes place.

30. The Bill gives broad powers to the Secretary of State to design the LLE via regulations with few constraints and limited scrutiny. We have suggested an amendment below with the aim of ensuring that some of the key design principles for the LLE that are necessary to achieve the Government’s ambitions are set out in primary legislation.

31. A further issue is that one of the main barriers for adult learners – which is highlighted in the Department for Education Impact Assessment – is the cost of study including living costs. [13] This is not addressed by the Bill. The Welsh Government recently introduced reforms to tackle this issue in Wales by extending maintenance support, including means-tested grants, to all students regardless of mode of study while maintaining low tuition fees for part-time study. This has had a huge impact on participation. [14]

32. For the LLE to be successful, it is crucial that the following design features are implemented:

· A unified funding system, not a bolt on. The LLE should be a fundamental reform that establishes a unified credit-based funding system rather than a "bolt on" creating a separate – and possibly less generous – funding system for those who study module-by-module. This means ending the current regulatory distinction between different modes of study, with part-time HE, full-time HE and distance learning all subject to different funding rules.

· A four year – or 480 credit – entitlement. This is necessary to change student behaviour to encourage a shift away from the current default of full-time degrees at age 18. It will also support lifelong learning by allowing graduates to retrain and upskill over their careers.

· Funding for all modules worth 30-60 credits. We are very concerned that the Higher Education Short Course Trial is limited to modules that are a maximum of 40 credits: if extended to the LLE this will limit flexibility and choice and force providers to design modules around funding rules rather than what students and employers want. There should also be no limits on subject areas for which modules are fundable.

· A credit-based funding cap. There should be a single credit-based tuition fee cap linked to study intensity applicable to all modes of study for all higher education qualifications, higher technical qualifications and approved modules. The LLE will only be effective in changing student behaviour if funding is mode-neutral, with tuition fees subject to the same cap regardless of how someone chooses to study: full-time, part-time or on a modular basis; face-to-face or via distance learning; degree programme or higher technical qualification. Flexibility in the current system is frustrated by a system which sets a single fee cap for all study classified as part-time regardless of study intensity.

· Mode-neutral maintenance support. Maintenance support should be set at the same level, adjusted for study intensity, regardless of mode of study for all higher education qualifications, higher technical qualifications and approved modules. If maintenance support is only available for full-time face-to-face study on degree programmes, the funding system will continue to incentivise that form of study. Maintenance support must be extended to distance learners and maintenance grants should be introduced for disadvantaged leaners.

· No minimum entry requirements (MERs). MERs are a serious threat to the success of the LLE. Support should be available with no restrictions to all adults regardless of prior qualifications. Applying minimum entry requirements of DDD at A-level to under 25s risks denying student finance to more than one in five (21 per cent) OU students.

· No Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) restrictions. There should be no ELQ restrictions on how the LLE is used, allowing people flexibility to use their funding entitlement to meet their skills needs. This will remove an important driver that currently pushes students towards full-time three-year degrees. If ELQ restrictions remain, there will be fewer advantages to a student not using all of their entitlement when they are young as the only real option available to them later in life will be to top-up their module, Certificate of HE, Diploma of HE or higher technical qualification to a degree in that discipline.

· Retain additional entitlements in high-priority subjects. The current entitlement for graduates to access public funding to retrain in STEM, nursing and other high-priority subjects via part-time degrees should be retained and extended by introducing an adjusted LLE for existing graduates of one year of full-time equivalent modular study to upskill in high priority areas.

· A regulatory framework designed for flexible learning. The LLE needs to be supported by a regulatory framework that is designed to encourage and support flexible lifelong learning. This includes ensuring that funded modules are of high-quality, that a credit transfer infrastructure exists allowing students to combine modules from different providers, and that the metrics used in regulation do not penalise flexible learning providers and those working with mature learners.

· Continued part-time student premium funding. Funding through the Strategic Priorities Grant via the Part-Time Student Premium should be retained at current levels and extended to modular provision to allow lifelong learning providers to maintain high-quality courses and support services that help mature students succeed while keeping tuition fees relatively low.

· Implemented in 2025/26 - The LLE should be implemented by the start of the 2025/26 academic year. It is important that the new system is in place as soon as possible to remove the current barriers to flexible learning.

· Investment in the Student Loans Company (SLC). Due to the historical development of the student loan system, with part-time learners not eligible for student loans until 2012/13, SLC’s existing systems are not designed around flexible learners and their often more complex learning journeys and personal circumstances. There needs to be investment in the SLC to allow it to effectively support flexible learning and to deliver the LLE.

Quality of Provision: Quality assessments of higher education (Part 2)

33. Clause 20 of the Bill gives the Office for Students the power to set the same minimum threshold in terms of student outcomes for all types of study with no requirement to take any contextual factors into account.

34. It is important that regulation is appropriate for flexible provision – including part-time and modular learning for mature students – and not just for full-time provision for young students. A "one size fits all" approach risks unintended consequences in hindering the UK objectives around lifelong learning. We have suggested an amendment below that makes clear that the Office for Students can take contextual factors into account.

Cheating services provided for post-16 students at English institutions (Part 4, Chapter 1)

35. Clauses 29-33 create a number of offences relating to completing assignments on behalf of students.

36. We welcome this legislation and government action to help tackle the problem of essay mills. This will support the OU in our ongoing activities aimed at preventing our students from engaging with such services and empowering our students so that, if they are struggling with their course or feeling under pressure, they feel confident in accessing our student support service and understand the critical importance of maintaining their academic integrity. Effective implementation of these measures will be critical and it is also essential that related interventions support students across the HE sector and all modes of study, including part-time distance learning.

Suggested amendments

Amendment 1

After Clause 16, insert the following new Clause:

Availability of lifelong loan entitlement

(1) The lifelong loan entitlement is available to any student regardless of:

(a) prior qualification,

(b) subject being studied,

(c) mode of study,

(d) intensity of study,

(e) institution of study,

(f) location of study, including remote learning,

(g) whether they are studying modules or full qualifications, or

(h) restrictions on student numbers (excluding for medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, and undergraduate teacher training).

(2) The Secretary of State may not, in exercising powers under this or any other Act in relation to the lifelong loan entitlement, restrict access to the scheme or how the lifelong loan entitlement is used on the grounds set out in subsection (1).


Members explanatory statement. This amendment is intended to put some of the key LLE design principles that are necessary to achieve the Government’s ambitions into primary legislation. It will ensure that the lifelong loan entitlement is available to those who wish to pursue a qualification at a level equivalent to or lower than one they already hold, and in any subject at any pace or course structure, and to prevent Government-imposed caps on student numbers that restrict student choice. Note: This is a probing amendment and may be technically deficient.

Amendment 2

Clause 20, page 24, line 17

After ‘the OfS’ delete ‘is not’ and insert ‘may be’

Members explanatory statement. It is important that regulation is appropriate for flexible provision – including part-time and modular learning for mature students – and not just for full-time provision for young students. A "one size fits all" approach risks unintended consequences in hindering the UK objectives around lifelong learning. Note: This is a probing amendment and may be technically deficient.

About The Open University

The Open University is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught over 2 million students, with over 200,000 current students. It teaches more than four in ten part-time UK undergraduates (47%) and has over 3,300 students on its apprenticeship programme at over 882 employers, making it one of the largest degree apprenticeship providers in England.

There are OU students in every single local area in the UK – it is among the five biggest providers in nine out of ten Parliamentary constituencies in England. The OU is crucial to social mobility: it is the largest provider of widening participation provision and nearly two thirds of OU students are from a Widening Participation background. Mature students tend to remain in the local area where they lived before beginning their studies once they graduate – five years after graduating more than 90% of OU graduates still live in the postcode area where they lived while they were studying. [15]

Contact: Helen Smith, Senior Public Affairs Manager

November 2021


[1] For further information about The Open University, please contact Helen Smith (Helen.Smith1@open.ac.uk)

[2] HESA Student Record, 2019/20, English-domiciled students, all years. Note that this analysis classifies student domicile on the basis of where someone lived immediately prior to commencing their studies

[3] Department for Education, Skills and Post-16 Education Bill: Policy Summary Notes, May 2021

[4] Department for Education, Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, January 2021

[5] HESA Student Record, English undergraduate first-year students, 2009/10 to 2019/20. The statistic on "lost learners" calculates how many more people in England would have accessed undergraduate higher education between 2010/11 and 2019/20 if numbers had remained constant at 2009/10 levels

[6] HESA Student Record, English undergraduate first-year students, 2009/10 to 2019/20

[7] HESA Student Record, English undergraduate first-year students, 2009/10 to 2019/20

[8] Prime Minister’s Office, Press Release: Prime Minister to Revolutionise Skills and Training Opportunities, 10 May 2021

[9] HESA Student Record, English undergraduate students, 2019/20. This is based on where students lived immediately prior to beginning their studies

[10] Department for Education, Further Education and Skills Statistics, November 2020. The statistics refer to registration starts during 2019/20

[11] The Open University, Build The Future Apprenticeship Survey, February 2021

[12] See FE Week, MK College, the SCIoT and The Open University announce new progression routes to Engineering and Computing degrees, 27 October 2021

[13] Department for Education, Skills and Post-16 Education Bill: Impact Assessment, 2021 (see page 49)

[14] Welsh Government, Press Release: Jump in Part-Time Students Accessing Support Following Introduction of the Most Generous Support Package in the UK, 31 January 2019

[15] Internal OU research

 

Prepared 30th November 2021