Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I begin by drawing the House’s attention to my interests as an honorary fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and a visiting professor at King’s College London. I also look forward to the two maiden speeches from new Members of this House, although it appears that both of them are significantly older than 29. We look forward to learning of their experiences.

The Bill is a very welcome measure, which brings extra flexibility into higher education and has the potential to yield bold reforms in how higher education is delivered. I very much hope that it works and succeeds in promoting access to higher education, but I warn the Minister that I hope that therefore it avoids the mistakes and problems that I experienced and which were referred to by the noble Baroness opposite when she talked about the decline in adult learning post 2010. We were actually very optimistic: we thought that extending larger fee loans to adult and part-time learners would maintain or even increase demand for higher education from them. However, it did not play out like that.

As I looked back on why that expectation that I had was not fulfilled, the lesson that I and others drew was that, for an 18 year-old, at a massive fork in the road in their life, choosing between going into higher education and doing something different—perhaps going into work—the overall benefits of higher education were clear and obvious, and they were willing to take out a loan, on the basis of payback if they were in a well-paid job. However, for someone already in work, who already has family commitments and who cannot be confident that taking a particular modular course will necessarily transform their earnings and opportunities, it does not look quite such an obvious and attractive option to take out extra debt—even though, as we all understand in this House, it is nothing like conventional debt. Given that that is the experience of the past decade or more, I very much hope that the Minister will be able to explain to the House why these lifelong loan entitlements will be successful in promoting demand for adult learning.

As we have already heard, there are then a set of issues about the supply of provision. It would be very interesting to know what scope there is. Perhaps the Minister is already in conversations with the Treasury about the circumstances in which these loans will be available to people. There may even be estimates going back and forth of the so-called RAB charge—how much of the loan is going to be written off. I hope that the Minister is successful in these discussions, but the more that she can share with us the information about what kind of provision she thinks she will be able to offer, as well as who is going to be making this provision, the more helpful it will be. It is possible that one of the most important and radical measures in the Bill is the new third category of registration with the Office for Students, which would enable new providers to come in and supplement existing provision from established universities. Can she share with the House a bit more information about how the new third category is going to operate?

I have some brief, specific questions. Obviously, one model is that we find that this entitlement is taken up by people dipping into more higher education later in life, but will the Minister confirm that this is a four-year entitlement that will be available for people after they start from university in the near future? Therefore, it would be perfectly possible for a new student to embark on a four-year course with a full four-year entitlement. Indeed, it may be—given the anxieties among adult learners—that the biggest growth is in four-year provision among new undergraduates. Will the Minister confirm that, if that means more people getting useful higher education for longer, that is something that the Government will welcome and support?

There has been a lot of concern expressed by the OfS and others about so-called positive outcomes from courses. One way in which you do not get a positive outcome is supposed to be if you drop out. We are used to a view of higher education whereby dropping out is a bad thing. However, it is very difficult to reconcile the rhetoric of dropping out being a bad thing with the celebration of people dipping in and out of higher education—doing a short course, then withdrawing for whatever reason, then coming back to do some more higher education study. If the OfS is going to carry on monitoring and criticising universities with high drop-out rates, and we are also going to encourage flexibility and moving in and out of higher education, I am sure that, if there is any person who can reconcile these two rather different approaches, it is the Minister in this House, and we very much look forward to her account of how the regime will operate. The fact is that some flexibility is actually a good thing, and the Bill is an opportunity to recognise that.

Finally, I hope the Minister will, in the course of our scrutiny of the Bill, share with us more about the metrics the Government will be using for success. How will we assess how well this is doing? What levels of take-up might we expect, what type of courses might students be doing, and how rapidly will she perhaps succeed in reaching her agreement with the Treasury on the scope and ambition of the actual provision that follows?

Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill

Lord Willetts Excerpts
Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 4, which would require the Secretary of State to publish a review of the lifelong loan entitlement before bringing in further regulations on fee limits. I welcome the Minister's comments in Committee, and I fully understand her feedback about what information will accompany further regulations as these changes are rolled out.

We have brought this amendment back to further raise the point about ensuring that students, the sector and Parliament are given clear information on the details of the LLE as soon as possible. Throughout the passage of this Bill, we have raised concerns, often after input from those in the higher education sector, that so little about the LLE in terms of course provision, maintenance, credits, transfers, and further rollout of modular study at other levels is confirmed in any meaningful detail.

I am none the less grateful that, following Committee, the Minister outlined further details of the LLE that relate to this Bill in a letter. However, as we know, this huge shift in higher education policy goes further than fee limits. We all want this change to work, but for that to happen the sector will need much more clarity than has been provided through this very narrow Bill.

The accounting officer assessment for the LLE states:

“The main feasibility risk of LLE is meeting the 2025 delivery timescale”.


Is the Minister still confident that the department will be able to deliver on time, particularly in the light of current pressures arising from the major emergency that the department is currently dealing with in school buildings across the UK?

My next question follows on naturally: what is in place if this timescale turns out to be unworkable? There are a great many sector stakeholders—as well as the students themselves, of course—who will need clearly communicated timelines. Amendment 1 from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, puts in the Bill the number of hours that constitute a credit. We understand why she tabled that amendment: it is important that the sector is given clarity and control over the definition of working hours and that it is consistent with the QAA’s higher education credit framework. As she noted, her concern is about the lack of detail. This is one of many areas in which the higher and further education sectors still have questions about how a credit will be defined.

The concept of a credit in education terms will also be completely alien to the general public, and there is a risk that employers simply do not understand its value. The Government need to think about how this can be communicated. We do not believe that putting a number in the Bill at this point would be beneficial. However, we would like a commitment from the Government that they will not seek to amend the value of a credit and will be led by the sector’s understanding of it.

On Amendment 2, I am glad that the Minister has outlined the Government’s plans to ensure sharia-compliant loans in writing; we look forward to receiving further engagement on this issue as the LLE progresses. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, pointed out, there is a distinct problem with skills gaps—a lack of applicants with the right skills. The economy cannot move forward appropriately with skills shortages.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, the amendments reflect widespread cross-party support for the Bill and its principles; they are not intended to destroy the Bill in any way. I see the case for the Bill, which of course I warmly welcome, as opening up new possibilities. We genuinely do not know the circumstances in which people may take them up and we do not know whether debt aversion is much more of an issue among mature learners than among young people aged 18 or 19; we will find out only if we give this a try. Similarly, we do not know how much suppressed demand there is for level 4 or level 5 qualifications because of the way in which loans are currently structured; we will find out only if we give this a try. So this is definitely worth going forward with.

I have three brief comments on the amendments. First, one of the temptations we have in this House— I have occasionally succumbed to it myself—is to try to determine the details of policy through primary legislation. That is one of the risks in Amendment 1, with its specification of the definition of “one credit”. Of course, it is an important and interesting area but, as we are embarking on a journey with a new and more flexible system, trying to put that into primary legislation would inhibit necessary policy flexibility—a point that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, referred to.

Secondly, I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, on sharia-compliant loans. We have been at this for 10 years now, and it really is time that a scheme such as this were available and in force. There were initially some tricky problems, but I think that the long work that the department has done over the years has resolved them. My understanding is that the technical and theological issues have been addressed. I know that the Minister herself is keen to get on with this, so anything that she can say to the House about her commitment to that timescale would be very welcome.

Finally, on Amendment 4, I am proud to say that I am acting as the spokesman for the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf. She very much regrets that she cannot be with us; she briefly appeared, but I think she had to catch a plane to Lithuania. In many ways, she is the intellectual origins of the Bill. I know that her spirit is that she wants to get on with it. Her concern about this amendment—which I completely understand and support—is that requiring another review before we can get on with things will slow down the pace still further. I think that the mood across this House is that we want to get on with it; we do not want reasons for further delay. I fear that Amendment 4 would constitute another obstacle to this potentially important and significant innovation in policy, which I warmly support.