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Flexible working

David Latchman welcomes proposals to support different study paths but says more clarity is needed

The way we lead our lives is changing faster than ever. The fourth industrial revolution, driven by rapid evolution of technology, has disrupted almost every industry. As the nature of jobs changes as quickly, workers may need to upskill or reskill many times over the course of their careers. The enduring notion that education is completed at age 21 has become outdated. Adapting to this new world is vital to ensuring the UK remains economically competitive.

Fortunately, there are signs that we’re heading in the right direction, with the government reacting to the need for reform by driving welcome changes. The proposed lifelong loan entitlement would provide every adult with a loan entitlement to the equivalent of four years of post-18 study, to be used flexibly across different institutions during their lifetimes—full or part-time, for separate modules or for qualifications taken in one go. The government’s intention to make the LLE the core of the loan system, rather than an add-on to three-year degree funding, is also to be welcomed.

A chance for transformation

The enduring model of studying for a degree over a set period at a single institution is likely to remain popular. However, by supporting flexible and modular study throughout an adult’s life, the LLE will encourage higher education institutions to provide more short courses. If students can bank their credits and build them up over time across different institutions, the LLE has the potential to truly transform the higher education landscape.

Providing more choice and flexibility over how, when and where students study also presents opportunities to improve access, participation and social mobility. Traditional barriers to later-life education, such as children or mortgages, will no longer stand in people’s way.

Birkbeck, University of London, is the UK’s only majority part-time classroom-based evening university. We attract people of all ages, who work or have other daytime commitments and are using their evenings to transform their lives. This gives us a unique insight into how these reforms could play out.

As a member institution of the Lifelong Learning Commission, Birkbeck has been tasked with recommending how the multiple barriers to lifelong learning can be removed and planning for an inclusive adult education system. The commission’s first report—The Pathway to Lifelong Education—calls for whole-system reform and sets out key recommendations, including how the LLE can work best.

Details needed

While the direction of travel is positive, there are several areas that lack clarity and certainty. At present, it is unclear if the LLE will cover maintenance support, and there are no details on repayment thresholds or interest rates. Proper support in this area is vital if the scheme is to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For the LLE to be most effective at supporting lifelong learning and making it easier for people to change careers, it needs to be as flexible as possible. I would like to see it unrestricted by subject to allow for diversity of knowledge and skills. Ideally, over time, I would also like it to be extended to six years to cover course switching.

Flexibility would also effectively remove the equivalent or lower qualification rule, which prevents people from accessing funding for qualifications that are at the same level or lower than their existing ones, apart from a small number of courses.

We also foresee resistance among institutions to the modular learning approach that allows learners to move and study at different universities. But for this to work and for it to give learners true flexibility, these measures will need to be adopted universally. We therefore encourage backing from the whole sector on this.

Time for urgency

Finally, we must not wait until 2025 for the LLE to be introduced. The Covid-19 pandemic has had, and continues to have, a huge impact on the economy, devastating some sectors while leading to huge demand in others. There is an urgent need to rebuild the economy and we must make sure that we have enough people with the right skills and knowledge to do so—now.

The LLE proposals have potential to radically shape the higher education market for the better, if the concerns outlined above are addressed. They back up the mission we have at Birkbeck, University of London: that education should be available to all and that study should be flexible so it can fit into people’s lives. The post-Covid era has the potential to be revolutionary, and we should grasp this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

David Latchman is the vice-chancellor of Birkbeck, University of London, and a commissioner of the Lifelong Learning Commission.