Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL]

Written evidence submitted by Universities UK (SPEB11)

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill- written evidence presented to the Public Bill Committee

About Universities UK

Universities UK (UUK) is the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Our member universities' core purpose is to maximise their positive impact for students and the public both in the UK and globally through teaching, research and scholarship. We are led by our members and act on behalf of universities.

UUK is submitting written evidence on particular aspects of the Bill than most affect our members, and will not be covering the entire Bill.

Key points

Ø Universities support policies, including the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), which will increase flexibility in the system and enable a wider range of learners to upskill and reskill.

Ø It would be helpful to have further details on the LLE as soon as possible so that universities and other stakeholders can input on its design and implementation, drawing on existing expertise.

Ø Collaboration, support, evaluation and testing will be crucial to ensure there are clear and rewarding options available for learners and that providers achieve the desired impact for the workforce and economic growth. Stimulating demand for modular, flexible study will also be key.

Ø Existing equivalent or lower level (ELQ) restrictions should be removed so that the opportunity to reskill at level 4, 5 or 6 is available to as many learners as possible. Eligibility for the LLE should also not be limited by subject choice or intensity of study.

Ø Universities have existing links with local Further Education colleges, employers and stakeholders including partnership arrangements, accrediting prior learning and designing and delivering degree apprenticeships. Universities look forward to further expanding their offering and deepening these local partnerships, including through Local Skills Improvement Plans.

Ø UUK has concerns about Clause 20 ‘Quality assessments of higher education’, which would allow the Office for Students to introduce minimum standards for student outcomes without benchmarking against student characteristics.

Ø UUK supports the government’s decision to outlaw the advertising and provision of cheating services (‘essay mills’); university support services are there to help vulnerable students struggling with anxiety around coursework and deadlines.

Universities UK- Written Submission

Lifelong learning

1. We share the government’s ambitions to make sure everyone has the right skills to get good jobs, both now and into the future as set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper.

2. The fast-changing nature of the labour market caused by technological developments and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic necessitates more frequent upskilling and reskilling. Successfully tackling global challenges such as climate change or the ageing population will require individuals to develop knowledge and skills in areas that are at an early stage of development and throughout their lives.

3. UUK has previously called on the government to introduce additional flexibilities in the student funding system to better support part-time, flexible learning and mature students that may have to juggle their education with caring commitments or employment.

4. In October 2020 UUK published polling undertaken by Savanta ComRes which found that 82% of prospective students in England that were either unemployed, at risk of unemployment or looking to learn new skills would be keen to study individual modules of a university degree. The polling also found that earning while learning and achieving a good work-life balance were the top reasons for modular learning.

5. UUK and our 140 members believe that any reforms to post-16 education should have student choice and flexibility at their heart, and meet employers present and future needs.

6. UUK welcomes the government’s decision to introduce a Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) that will provide individuals with funding up to the equivalent of four years’ full time post-18 education at levels 4-6 undertaken in further education or higher education institutions.

7. Development of the LLE is in its very early stages and we will continue to engage constructively with the government to ensure it is workable and delivers for learners. In order to provide robust evidence, UUK set up a Lifelong Learning Advisory Group of university vice-chancellors to discuss the design and implementation of the LLE.

8. We eagerly await the publication of the government’s consultation on the LLE and are unable to make recommendations on specific aspects of the policy until further details are available.

9. However, the Lifelong Learning Advisory Group have agreed a set of principles for an education system that delivers a clear and joined up choice for all learners, supporting the ambitions of the LLE.

a) Learners should enter an education system with opportunity and flexibility at its heart. Providers will facilitate greater flexibility through modular study, enhanced credit recognition and transfer, and a new focus on reskilling. Broad and consistent eligibility criteria will allow learners to choose how and where they engage with education. Providers will deliver learning experiences and qualifications that focus on student needs, whether that is to change career or to upskill.

b) Employers and universities should enhance their strategic partnerships to locate and meet the skills needs of the future. These collaborations will deliver agile local and national networks supporting both upskilling and reskilling aligned to local and national workforce needs. In addition to skills delivery these partnerships will support innovation generating local skills demand and supporting economic growth.

c) Funding models should support learners to study through different routes. The diversity of the sector is a strength and incentives should enable providers to grow their high-quality provision in line with their missions. A funding model that reflects institutional diversity will produce sustainable and high quality provision that reaches more learners.

d) Education providers should collaborate to support seamless progression. Enabling learners to move between further education and higher education for different needs will be key to these reform’s success. Providers should build on strategic local partnerships to deliver more seamless, connected solutions for employers and greater opportunities for students within regions. These partnerships will deliver on ambitions for growth and quality.

e) As we build towards 2025, government and the sector should work together to learn what works, energise interest from students and demand from employers, and support transformation. The LLE is a large and complex reform programme; collaboration, support, evaluation and testing will be crucial to ensure there are clear and rewarding options available for learners and that providers achieve the desired impact for the workforce and economic growth. Mechanisms should be established to pilot, test and stimulate demand and support transitions to new approaches.

10. We supported amendments tabled in the Lords that would guarantee eligibility for the LLE is not limited by factors such as the level of an individual’s prior qualifications, their chosen subject of study or the intensity at which they wish to study.

11. As it stands, ‘equivalent or lower level qualification’ (ELQ) rules prevent individuals with an existing level 6 qualification from being eligible for loan funding to undertake a qualification at the same or lower level (with some limited exceptions including for medicine, architecture or initial teacher training). This policy prevents people from reskilling later in their lives, and would be particularly detrimental if applied to the LLE.

12. We would also welcome further details on the government’s plans for introducing maintenance support for individuals studying through the LLE and, specifically, what would the minimum intensity of study be for individuals to be eligible for maintenance loans.

Universities in the wider skills landscape

13. Universities already support flexible learning in a number of ways, through partnerships with further education colleges, working with employers on apprenticeships, accrediting prior learning, and delivering Level 4 and 5 qualifications such as Foundation Degrees. However, we know many universities want to build on this strong foundation, expanding their offer to learners.

14. Level 4/5 refers to a certain skills levels and includes qualifications such as Higher Technical qualifications, apprenticeships, HNCs, HNDs, NVQs, foundation degrees and the first two years of a full undergraduate degree.

15. Often policymakers are most familiar with the route by which people move straight from a Level 3 qualification (A Levels, BTECs) to a full university degree at Level 6. Level 4 and 5 qualifications provide an opportunity for those whose highest qualification is Level 3 to develop their skills and enhance their job prospects.

16. In 2018/19 [1] 33% of learners undertaking Level 4/5 qualifications are doing so at a Higher Education Institution, 36% at a Further Education College and 26% through private training providers.

17. Despite Level 4/5 qualifications’ ability to equip learners with higher level skills and meet employers’ needs, current regulations around student completion statistics penalise universities if they offer flexibility to students that wish to complete one or two years of their degree course. We know that the decline in study at these levels have hit mature and part-time students the hardest.

18. The amendments tabled by the government in the House of Lords that would amend the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (HERA) to expand the definition of a higher education course to include individual modules is therefore welcome.

19. We welcome the Secretary of State for Education and Universities Minister’s recent advice to the Office for Students to encourage universities to set ambitious targets around increasing the proportion of students on higher and degree apprenticeships, Level 4 and 5 courses including Higher Technical Qualifications and part-time courses. It is important that institutions can set targets that, although stretching, suit the needs of their local populations specifically.

20. It will also be important to drive demand for these qualifications and forms of provision, and we are ready to work with the Department for Education and other stakeholders to ensure information, advice and guidance is improved for both school leavers and mature learners. Universities are ready to build on their strong links with employers and other education providers to locate and drive up demand.

21. We welcome the introduction of Local Skills Improvement Plans they are strong examples of how stakeholders can come together to set out a local skills vision. When the LSIP’s recommendations are published there must be sufficient resource to follow through and realise their ambitions.

Quality assessments of higher education

22. The Bill includes provision to extend Clause 23 (‘Assessing the quality of, and the standards applied to, higher education’) of the HERA 2017. The existing legislation, which established the university regulator the Office for Students (OfS), makes reference to the regulator’s ability to assess the quality and standards of higher education providers on its register, or applying to be, but does not specify the metrics that might be used.

23. Clause 20 is a permissive clause that does not formally expand the OfS’ powers, but clarifies the levers available to them. It specifically explains that:

· The OfS may take into account student outcomes when assessing quality

· The outcomes considered could include continuation, completion and progress and could be measured quantitively or qualitatively

· A minimum level for these metrics can be determined as and when the OfS feels it is appropriate, but the minimum level does not need to be benchmarked by student characteristics, institution type, subject or any other factor

· The OfS can make judgements on student outcomes with reference to these minimum levels

24. The clause does not require the OfS to use student outcomes data and apply non-benchmarked minimum baselines, but it would legally allow it to. This could lead to significant changes to the way quality is assessed. The OfS has previously stated its intention to adopt this approach and is planning to consult further on this shortly, to establish the framework for regulating quality through outcomes data. However, it is unclear whether the baselines themselves – the level that is considered the minimum acceptable – will be subject to thorough consultation. Similarly, any changes to the baselines in the future.

25. Universities have a strong record of delivering high-quality courses supporting students to become successful, work-ready graduates. Satisfaction rates among students and employers are high and evidence shows higher education is a valuable investment for individuals, government, and the public.

26. It is right that students should expect positive outcomes during and at the conclusion of their studies, and that all students should receive the same high level of quality irrespective of their background or characteristics. Universities do not apply different expectations for what students can achieve. However UUK is still concerned that the text of the Bill states that the OfS would not be required to publish different minimum stands depending on student characteristics, institution or course of study, and the potential for unintended consequences.

27. Depending on the level at which minimum expectations were set, universities may effectively be disincentivised from enrolling students from non-traditional or disadvantaged backgrounds. These are some of the individuals who could most benefit from a lifechanging university education. However, due to factors that are not always within the control of a university to address, these students may have face additional challenges which may make them appear ‘higher risk’ for a university to support if narrowly defined outcomes are the only measure of quality used.

28. It is not clear how using retention rates to measure quality would fit in with the direction of travel towards individuals learning in a more flexible way; an individual may enrol on a three-year full degree course but decide that one or two years (the equivalent to a Level 4 or 5 course, respectively) would better suit their needs once they have started.

29. Employment outcomes will also be impacted by national and local economic conditions.It will be important not to define successful outcomes too narrowly in the interest of supporting innovation and delivering on the government’s Levelling Up agenda.

30. Questions remain about how the proposed approach to measuring student outcomes fits in with the future development of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) which does used benchmarked data, and whether pandemic-related considerations will be taken into account.

31. Universities monitor and review their courses regularly and have robust processes in place to uphold quality and standards. The overwhelming majority of courses are high quality, however, to ensure maximum value, UUK has been exploring the development of a framework in England for institutional programme and course review processes centered on best practice, to ensure courses provide good value and outcomes for students and the taxpayer, while meeting the changing needs of employers and the economy.

32. The aim of the framework is to develop an approach where the full diversity of universities in England can integrate graduate outcome and wider measures of value into reviews of courses, while maximising their ability to contribute to levelling up, improving social mobility, and meeting the needs of students, employers, and local areas.

Cheating services

33. UUK welcomes the government’s decision to make it a criminal offence to provide, arrange or advertise cheating services (including ‘essay mills’) for financial gain to students undertaking a qualification at any post-16 education including universities. This is outlined in Part 4 Chapter 4 of the Bill following agreement to a government amendment.

34. UUK has repeatedly called for essay writing services to be made illegal and we have worked together with government, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and other higher education bodies to tackle their use.

35. While the use of essay mills by students is rare, all universities have codes of conduct that include severe penalties for students found to be submitting work that is not their own. There is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that essay mill companies have become more predatory in targeting vulnerable students. Universities have become increasingly experienced at dealing with such issues and are engaging with students from day-one to underline the implications of cheating and how it can be avoided.

36. University support services are there to help vulnerable students struggling with anxiety and stress around coursework and deadlines.

November 2021


[1] https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/higher-level-learners-in-england/2018-19

 

Prepared 3rd December 2021