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Skills practicalities

Gordon Marsden welcomes the UK government’s enthusiasm for modular learning but wants more than rhetoric

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” as the nursery rhyme has it. Still, it’s a step forward if, after a decade of policies blighting life chances for many part-time and adult learners, a universities minister says she wants to put modular study at the “very heart of how we deliver education in the future”. There’s a long way to go, however, before saddling the steed to achieve that transformation—especially after the pandemic.

Don’t get me wrong, I think modules can be a strong agent for progress. In 20 years as an Open University tutor, I saw how they helped my students navigate their hard-earned qualifications, and my work as shadow education minister confirmed me in that view.

The pandemic has speeded up the need for short, sharp, bespoke courses for rapid reskilling and retrofitting—not just for new technologies in the green economy but also for the digital, artificial intelligence and logistics industries. Alongside that, we must prioritise the personal and enabling skills that employers have repeatedly said they need from graduates and others.

Modules could be critical drivers for all of this, given the numbers of people from their mid-twenties to their mid-forties losing jobs and careers as the pandemic hits hard. But the watchword to make modules work is ‘progression’. As former education secretary David Blunkett put it recently, opening the conference of the Right to Learn campaign: “If you’re going to level up, you have to move downwards, and strong pipelines for skills for both employers and employees are crucial.”

This echoes one of the recommendations of the final report from the Commission for Lifelong Learning, published in November 2019: to “examine models of credit accumulation and transfer which support people to accumulate and transfer achievements whilst ensuring quality and recognising that not all learning is qualification-based”.

Speed it up

The government has given 2025 as the date when its lifelong loan entitlement, heralded in its white paper in January, will kick in. It will depend heavily on modular, digital and blended learning. That timetable must be accelerated. If not, it will fail thousands of people who are being hit by lost jobs from the pandemic and from new technologies.

Demand here is as crucial as supply. How will module take-up fare with the government’s reliance on loans to fuel its lifetime skills guarantee? Problems with advanced learner loans, which replaced grants for vocational courses from 2013 onwards, do not make a happy precedent. Year after year, half of the hundreds of millions of pounds set aside went back unused to the Treasury because of debt aversion from many adult learners with families and complex responsibilities. There is scant reason to believe their 2020s successors will behave differently.

As for would-be higher education learners, their willingness to take out tuition fee loans may be blunted by the Treasury openly floating plans to extend repayment periods to 35 or 40 years (with extortionate interest rates) and slash the repayment threshold from £27,295 to around £20,000. This would hit more graduate earners earlier in areas outside London and the south-east, where salary starts are often much lower.

The small print

How will the government’s ‘transformative’ initiatives be delivered, by whom and on what terms? Claire Callender, a professor of higher education studies, is right to emphasise the huge negative impact that tripled tuition fees from 2012 onwards brought—especially for Open University students, students over 35 and those taking level 4 and 5 qualifications or low-intensity short courses. 

Other would-be learners in the 2020s risk being left behind by inadequate ministerial initiatives. Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City and Guilds, provided her own list at the Right to Learn conference: young people and lowest-income earners in social care, hospitality and other jobs that can’t be done remotely; disabled workers; and ethnic minority employees. A high proportion of all of these are women.

For all the Whitehall jargon of ‘skills accelerators’ and ‘bootcamp training’, there will only be cut-through for all these people if the government radically rethinks current restrictions on the free level 3 offers in the white paper.

How sensible is it to block from eligibility people needing to study for a new career because their jobs and qualifications have become extinct? This will be further exacerbated by the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s centralised list of courses, which, as many in vocational education have protested, leaves off many courses that are valuable for the new economy of the 2020s.

It also ignores nine million people in the UK still lacking basic skills. As Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, put it in FE News, the lifetime skills guarantee “needs to be much wider to support retraining and learning at a range of levels”.  The government needs to get many of these people rapidly through to a pipeline of levels 1 and 2 to have a chance of them accessing level 3.

Defining outcomes

In all the detail so far of how skills bill initiatives will operate, scant regard is given to working with elected mayors and combined authorities, who are showing real appetite for their own roadmaps for jobs, skills and recovery. Ministers and officials should be enabling universities to play a critical role in the cohesion of the communities where they are situated.

The universities minister is deluded if she thinks simply giving diktats from on high and offloading all the responsibility for them onto higher education will bring about the necessary step change. The Office for Students could be of considerable use; I have great regard for the commitment to fair access and participation shown by Chris Millward and his predecessor Les Ebdon.

But for the OfS to do its stuff, it must be a freer agent, not fettered when it speaks inconvenient truths to power. If you will the ends, you must will the means. The arguments over skills, modules and devolved initiatives this summer need to define the outcomes for transformation, not just the rhetoric around it.

Gordon Marsden is a co-founder of the Right to Learn campaign and former shadow minister for higher education, further education and skills.