Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill

Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, like other speakers, I welcome the Bill. My main regret is that it has taken so long to introduce a radical new system of finance for schools, universities and colleges to support study by part-time mature students. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, who was involved, that the coalition Government’s introduction of the £9,000 per annum fee loans system was a disaster for those students, leading to an enormous fall in their numbers over the last decade. That this was happening became apparent soon after the fees were trebled, but nothing was done.

It has also taken too long to respond to this element in Sir Philip Augar’s report, published in 2018, which contained a range of proposals to reform the financing of courses, in FE as well as HE, and promote lifelong learning and a more skilled workforce, but better late than never. At last, we have government recognition that many learners, especially mature students, will benefit from a system of properly financed modular courses with flexible start and end dates, and the possibility of building up the credit needed to graduate at the rate that is most suitable for the individual student. We should now be able to move away from a structure that has been completely dominated by inflexible three-year, full-time undergraduate degrees, at the expense of promoting both the supply and demand, which the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, referred to at length, of flexible alternatives.

Our economy has been blighted by low productivity for many years, much of which is caused by poor skills and too few opportunities to continue developing old skills and to apply new ones throughout our lives. The Bill is focused on higher-level courses, but there also needs to be far more funded support at level 3. We must not forget that 60% of young people reach this level by the age of 19, so 40% do not. Employer investment in training per employee has fallen by some 28% in real terms since 2005. Will the Minister say what the Government intend to do to boost level 3 study? This is, after all, a pathway to level 4. Will she say something about the reforms required to respond to the existing need for technical skills as well as technological change? Surely, defunding level 3 is not the answer.

The Bill is currently very broad-brush, as others have said, leaving much of the detail of how the new system will work to secondary legislation. Can the Minister tell the House when this will be introduced, presumably with much more detail on how fee limits will be determined? There are also a number of immediate questions to be asked about how the Bill’s proposals will be implemented.

First, what do the Government intend to do about maintenance support and eligibility for those taking the modular route? Secondly, what preparation has been done to ensure that the Student Loans Company will be properly prepared to support the provisions of this Bill? Thirdly, what will be the range and extent of the credit-based method? More clarity is needed on whether most courses will eventually be eligible for modular funding. What is the Government’s intention regarding the speed of introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement? Given that it will not be available for all courses and all students at level 4 in 2025-26 or at level 6 two years later, it is important for us to understand the criteria for what is selected initially. For example, as the Minister mentioned earlier, how will “high-quality” be defined and how speedy do the Government intend to be in implementing the full programme that this Bill intends to develop?

Clearly, the Bill proposes a new direction in how programmes are funded. Some changes will therefore be needed to the system of regulation by the Office for Students. The noble Lord, Lord Willetts, mentioned the issue of drop-out; some new thinking needs to be done by the Office for Students in this area.

I am sorry to ask so many questions, but every speaker today will want to do so because we do not know very much about exactly what this will look like in the end. The HE and FE sectors will certainly need more clarity, as will future students trying to make decisions about their mode of study as well as about what subject they choose. It is also vital that employers are fully engaged with the new system but do not exploit it to fund their own training. That would be a disastrous misuse of taxpayers’ money.

Lastly, there will be a need for carefully thought-out monitoring of the outcomes of this Bill. I hope the Government have plans for more initial pilots and then really rigorous monitoring, especially of the extent to which it reaches genuine new lengths as the system develops and expands.

I end on an optimistic note. I hope that what is proposed will be the beginning of a great cultural change whereby the nation truly embraces lifelong learning, and every man and woman realises that it is never too late to follow a course and will be helped and encouraged to do so. Then the vision of George Birkbeck and others 200 years ago starting the mechanics’ institutes, of Michael Young and Jennie Lee, who created the Open University, of the founders of the Working Men’s College, and of countless others who worked for the Workers’ Educational Association, will at last be realised.