My Lords, I am delighted to be back in the Chamber to bring forward another significant piece of legislation for our skills reform agenda. I am particularly looking forward to the speeches today from my noble friend Lord Sewell of Sanderstead and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield.
This Government want learners to be able to access courses in a more flexible way in order to fit study around work, family and personal commitments and to retrain as their circumstances and the economy change. The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill will help create a new route for people who require student finance for study at levels 4 to 6 in further and higher education institutions. It will make it easier for people to study flexibly, preventing learners being charged disproportionately for choosing to study in a way that suits them, and ultimately to acquire skills that can transform their lives.
This Bill does three key things. First, it will allow for fee limits for all types of courses to be set in a consistent and appropriate way through enabling fee limits to be based on credits rather than academic years. What this means in practice is that modules and short courses, as well as more “traditional” degree courses, will be priced according to the amount of learning they contain. This will create a more flexible system and will go a long way to encourage more people into post-18 education.
Secondly, this Bill introduces the concept of a course year, rather than an academic year. This allows fee limits for courses and modules to align accurately with the start date of a student’s study. Doing so will mean that, for example, if a course starts on 1 October, the fee limit will also apply from 1 October rather than from one of four fixed dates, as it does within the current academic year system.
Finally, this Bill will allow the Secretary of State to set a cap on the total number of credits that can be charged for each type of course. For example, fees charged for a certificate of higher education will be capped at 120 credits, whereas a diploma of higher education will be capped at 240 credits. This will prevent learners being charged unfairly for their studies and ensure that fee limits remain aligned with current rates, based on standard practices.
The Bill includes a number of delegated powers to enable the credit-based fee limits system to work. These powers essentially allow the numerical detail which will determine a financial fee limit for each course year, such as per-credit financial limits and course year maximum numbers of credits, to be set out in regulations. This mirrors the existing approach in Schedule 2 to HERA and is not unique to fee limits. It is important that these numerical values are set out in secondary legislation so that further primary legislation is not needed to amend them when reviewed. There are no Henry VIII powers in this Bill.
Noble Lords will have seen that the Government have now published their response to the public consultation on the details of the wider lifelong loan entitlement—also known as the LLE—and I thank those Lords who have taken the time to discuss this response with me in detail. While the Bill enables us to deliver the LLE, it is worth emphasising that its scope is tightly focused on changing the system by which fee limits are set.
The LLE will transform access to post-18 education and skills by providing individuals with a loan entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 study, £37,000 in today’s fees, which can be used to fund courses and modules at levels 4 to 6 over the course of their working lives. It is estimated that at least 80% of the workforce of 2030 are already in work today. We want to give them the opportunity to upskill and reskill over their careers in order to progress and adapt to changing skills needs and employment patterns.
By putting level 4 and 5 courses on the same funding basis as traditional undergraduate degrees, the LLE aims to give people a real choice in how and when they study to acquire new life-changing skills. This Bill ensures that it costs the same for a learner to study a qualification module by module as it would to study that same qualification in one go.
In the consultation response, we said we would take a phased approach to the funding of modules, focusing first on modules of higher technical qualifications and some levels 4 and 5 advanced learner loan-funded courses, with new checks to ensure that they meet employer need. I shall give the House some examples of courses in scope for modular funding. They include the following HTQs: the higher national diploma in construction management for England at level 5; the certificate of higher education in cyber security at level 4; and a foundation degree in science—professional practice in health and social care—at level 5. The crux of our approach to introducing funding for modules is based on courses that we know have good employer returns.
Focusing initially on certain high-value level 4 and 5 courses will allow us to test and learn from the approach before extending funding, where appropriate, to modules of other high-quality courses at levels 4, 5 and 6. We also want to address the skills gap identified by the Augar review, which is overwhelmingly at levels 4 and 5, with fewer than 70,000 students a year doing levels 4 and 5 compared to almost 470,000 doing undergraduate degrees. OECD analysis suggested in 2021 that only 9% of all adults aged 25 to 64 in the United Kingdom hold a level 4 or 5 as their highest qualification, compared to around 15% of adults in France and 36% in Canada.
Overall, data on wage returns for levels 4 to 5 is compelling. The 2020 data from the Centre for Vocational Education Research shows that higher-level qualifications lead on average to better earnings outcomes than finishing education at level 3, for both men and women. For example, the average female level 5 achiever would earn approximately 57% more than would be the case if they stopped at level 3. This equates to roughly a £9,800 increase in annual earnings at age 26.
In order to support learners in understanding and deciding how to utilise the opportunities provided by these reforms, the LLE personal account will show their learning balance as well as clearly signposting the courses and modules that they can access to propel themselves into learning and to further their career aspirations. Whether they are studying a three-year degree, a higher technical qualification or another level 4 or 5 course, and regardless of whether they are studying at a university or a college, every student should be confident that higher education will help them to succeed in life. This is especially important at a time of challenging economic circumstances.
I am delighted to bring the Bill before the House today and that we have reached this pivotal stage in driving a transformation of post-18 study. This legislation will form a vital part of the LLE, which as a whole will allow students in generations to come more flexible access to courses, helping them to train, upskill or retrain alongside work, family and personal commitments, and as both their circumstances and the economy change. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an important addition to the education portfolio of legislation presented to this House by the Government, and from the outset I state the Labour Party’s support for the financial funding for students as evidenced in this legislation. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill with clarity and in such detail.
We look forward to hearing the maiden speeches in this debate from the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield, both of whom I am sure will continue to contribute thoughtfully and sincerely to the future work of this House.
This Bill follows on from the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, which I had the pleasure of working on from the Opposition Front Bench alongside my noble friend Lord Watson. We sought to make changes as we took that Bill through the House; I am looking forward to my noble friend’s contribution in this debate on the latest Bill, as we continue to try to make changes to this primary legislation.
The main issue with the Bill is the lack of detail. It is an incredibly short Bill to deal with the significant issue of the decline of lifelong learning and, as it stands, it will mean a lack of clarity for the industry. The Bill introduces the next set of changes to primary legislation required to enable the LLE to be introduced from 2025. It would amend the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to allow Ministers to set credit-based fee limits for some modules and courses, and the framework for how those limits will be set. It will also provide powers for Ministers to determine which courses have credit-based fees and to set the parameters of the new system via secondary legislation.
As stated, we support the introduction of the LLE and the credit-based method to determine fees. That could make a real difference in helping adults to access flexible lifelong learning, thereby beginning to address the decline that the sector has experienced over some time in England. Notwithstanding that positive statement, we believe that the legislation could be significantly improved, and today is the beginning of how we set our case out in that respect.
The number of adults aged 21 or over accessing higher-level skills courses has fallen dramatically since 2009-10, and participation is now significantly lower in England than in the rest of the UK. As with much legislation presented by this Government, it appears that the integral features of how the LLE and the credit-based method will work in practice are left to secondary legislation. Yet again, more detail needs to be included on the face of the Bill to ensure that it will be effective in boosting lifelong learning. We need greater clarity on the concepts at the centre of the Bill; we need a definition of credits and what the minimum and maximum yearly credits will be, for example.
It is essential to reverse this decline in accessing higher education. That requires a funding and regulatory system which supports and encourages lifelong learning. The LLE could be transformative in revitalising flexible higher education and reversing the sharp decline in the number of adult learners. It could also incentivise alternative, flexible pathways that support people to access learning throughout life. However, its detailed design will be key in determining how it works in practice.
I will ask the Minister a range of questions that the slender content of the Bill raises but does not answer. What is the strategic vision for modular funding within the LLE, and is the intention for most modules of designated courses ultimately to be eligible for funding? Will per-credit fee limits be set at different levels depending on whether a course is full time or part time, face to face or distance learning, or be based on the subject or level of study? Will all students be included in the LLE from 2025, or will transitional arrangements be put in place as part of a phased implementation? How will the design details of the LLE, including those on ELQ rules and residual entitlements for those who already have higher education qualifications, work in practice? Will providers continue to receive support from the part-time student premium to help with the additional costs associated with flexible part-time study? It is vital to ensure that this flexibility is considered.
No doubt the Minister is expecting me to comment on what we do in Wales, and I would hate to disappoint her. While I will leave it to other noble Lords to comment in more detail, I note that the current, progressive system of student finance we have in Wales means that Welsh undergraduate students have less to repay, on average, than their English peers, as we continue to provide non-repayable grants. They also receive a guaranteed level of maintenance support, irrespective of income.
Currently, part-time students studying face to face are entitled to maintenance support. However, the vast majority of part-time distance learning students are not. The introduction of the LLE could be a real opportunity to make this important change. Introducing maintenance support makes a difference. We have seen this with the introduction in 2018-19 of such support for part-time and distance learning students in Wales. It illustrates the significant potential impact on demand for part-time learning from extending maintenance support.
Maintenance support is crucial to learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to prevent further hurdles. Otherwise, many adults will be unable to take up these opportunities and it would prevent these people transforming their life chances and being part of the skilled workforce that employers and our economy need.
Furthermore, an extension to distance learning students would help mitigate the current cost of living pressures facing distance learners, which are beginning to impact on mature students. For working students, there is also the concern that employers would reduce their own staff training obligations as expectations of individuals funding their own training would arise as an unintended consequence.
In conclusion, there is a positive element to the Bill that we welcome. But, as it progresses through your Lordships’ House, we will bring amendments to cover the points I have raised and to try to ensure that greater substance and practicality are put into the Bill and thus lessen the subsequent need for further secondary legislation.
My Lords, there has been great enthusiasm for the Bill, which makes welcome ground in a number of areas. Who cannot support the idea of lifelong learning? I think it was Adam Smith who was reported as saying that every man is a student all his life and longer too, which betrays a rather curious view of the afterlife. It was obviously before the days of equal opportunities, because women should of course be included in that. We all continue to learn, so why not learn in the interests of the nation and the economy?
I thank the Minister for being a listening Minister and for her patience in listening to the points of view from these Benches. There is much to welcome in the Bill, but it is rather a curate’s egg. We welcome the modular approach, giving funding for units or modules to encourage people to learn parts of skills and qualifications and get credit for the parts they have mastered, even if not a whole qualification. We are also pleased to see the demise of the ELQ restrictions. It never made any sense to deter people from studying for a qualification of equal level to one they already held but in a different discipline.
But we are left with a number of questions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, said, it is a short Bill and short on detail. Obviously, the Welsh seem to be doing it a lot better than us. First, the Liberal Democrats are not convinced that large cohorts of adult learners will be keen to take on debt, and the lifelong learning entitlement is indeed a debt. We proposed a skills wallet, putting money into learners’ pockets to be used to enhance their skills, learning and competence at three key stages of their careers. We argue that that money would be rapidly recouped by their enhanced earning capacity.
We know that many adults are loathe to take on additional debt, so I ask the Minister: what research was undertaken to establish what enthusiasm there would be for adults taking on debt to increase their skills? What criteria will be used to determine which modules are eligible for funding under the lifelong loan entitlement? How will positive student outcomes be defined? What career information, advice and guidance will be available to adult learners as they embark on their programmes?
We also have questions about maintenance support, which should be a key consideration when making changes to the student finance system. For learners to pursue flexible study, they are likely to reduce working hours or require childcare support. There is also a lack of clarity on disabled students’ allowance and eligibility. Can the Minister shed light on that? The suggestion is that all these details should be in secondary legislation, but we feel that we need more in the Bill.
The Open University is among those interested to find out how the Bill will help distance learners. They tend to be excluded from maintenance support, which can be a barrier to learning. Why is this? Will the LLE be accessible to all in 2025-26 or will it be introduced gradually for different courses, modes of study or age cohorts?
Fees and maintenance levels should be proportionate to a full qualification, with support to deliver wraparound support—such as well-being support, careers advice and access to facilities—and high-cost modules. Would high-cost modules attract pro rata teaching grants? If not, this would disincentivise modularisation in many disciplines where there are particular skill shortages; at the moment, we think particularly of maths, physics and—from this morning’s news—English. Are there examples of good practice already in place for modular learning? If so, we should build on them, not try to reinvent wheels.
When national vocational qualifications were introduced around 1990—I was involved in the very first one—how exciting it was that we had a system of vocational qualifications that could parallel academic qualifications in its simplicity. Oh dear—happy days. They were all in units and, after much debate, they were allowed to be accredited. Of course, Governments always choose to ignore vocational qualifications if they can, but I suggest that the lessons learned from those days could be just as useful if lifelong learning is to be successful.
I am sure that others will also wish the Bill well, but I hope we can make some amendments to ensure that it really does encourage and enable people to add to and embellish their learning and their contribution to their lives and those of the community and the economy. I look forward to the debate and the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, I declare my interests as an honorary fellow of Balliol and as the incoming chair of Cancer Research UK, one of the country’s largest independent scientific funders of British universities.
Compared with other major countries, and indeed with our own past, Britain’s economic performance since the financial crisis of 2007 to 2009 has been problematic. On productivity and growth, we have essentially been treading water for the last decade. If, like me, you buy the argument that this is partly because investment in skills has been neglected, you will see the Bill as a small but constructive piece of the jigsaw. As the Minister said, most of the British workforce of the 2030s is already in work today.
I judge that this is a sensible, technical Bill, but the question is: will it actually be impactful in the real world? There we have to acknowledge uncertainty. The Government’s impact assessment says that
“it is too early to confidently predict the likely response of providers and learners to the introduction of LLE fee limits and the impact on provision, choice, and take-up”.
That is true, but I suggest that beneficial impact will likely need five further actions: two on the demand side, as it were—to widen eligibility for lifelong learning support—and three on the supply side, to widen educational provision.
On the demand side, I am afraid that there are some early signs that the proposed approach to lifelong learning fee support may struggle to attract many people. As I understand it, the Department for Education and OFS short courses trial has so far advanced loans to only 37 people looking for new skills or career changes. As David Kernohan has pointed out, slightly mischievously, this is rather fewer than the number of MPs who will leave at the next election, looking for new skills and career changes.
I ask the Minister to keep an open mind on two things on the demand for the lifelong learning support. First, as we have just heard, can she reconsider the prohibition on maintenance support for those studying by distance learning? For a person bringing up children while in low-paid employment, who may have missed out on university the first time around, the biggest cost of undertaking more educational study is the opportunity cost of being out of the labour market. Distance learning is obviously a way of helping to square that circle. To me at least, it seems that access to maintenance support should depend on the personal circumstances of the learner, not the mode of tuition.
Secondly, I ask the Minister to consider allowing more flexibility in the minimum number of credits that qualify for the new lifelong learning loan. I note that 30 credits, which has been discussed, is the equivalent of perhaps 10 hours a week of study for 30 weeks a year, which may be too big a chunk to bite off for the type of adult learner we are looking to encourage through this mechanism. It is possible that 10 or 15 credits may be a better option for some. We all understand the complex interaction between employer-supported short courses and those that people pay for directly themselves, but it seems to me that at this stage of the legislation we need more flexibility.
Even assuming that those two points on the demand side can be addressed, on the supply side I suggest that, to expand educational provision in new ways, there are at least three further elements that will have to be in place for the Bill to fulfil its potential. Here I depart slightly from the last two speeches in that I do not criticise the Government for not putting all this detail in the Bill on this occasion. It seems to me that we will have to be flexible and agile as we go, so locking ourselves in through a whole load of specified tramlines as to how this will work would probably be a mistake at this stage. However, that does not mean that these further three questions on the supply side do not need answering, and I hope that the Minister will be able to do so.
First, we have to question whether the likely allowed tuition revenue per credit will be sufficient to cover universities’ costs, and hence whether universities, FE providers and other educational providers will respond by making available these new courses. Figures released last month by the Office for Students suggest that the higher education sector’s spending on educating undergraduate home students exceeded income. It made a loss of £955 million; in other words, it covered only about 95p on every £1 of its costs. There is no reason to think that these modular courses will be cheaper on average; in fact, it may be the reverse. So if these courses will be loss-making, why do the Government think that educational providers will choose to expand their lifelong learning modular options, where marginal costs exceed marginal revenues?
This gets to the question of whether or not, as the Minister said in her opening speech, it should be the case that modules are priced according to the number of credits, without regard to the underlying marginal cost of offering those programmes. We all understand that this is a can of worms. The appearance and reality gap between tuition fees and the revenues—the sticker price versus the way in which university finances operate for the current undergraduate system—will begin to come under great pressure, if you allow that kind of marginal pricing through this route. But if you do not, it is not obvious that educational providers will respond in the way that the Government want.
Secondly, on educational provision, in some fields of study for modular learning to work there will need to be an agreed sequence of study. Can the Minister confirm how the Government envisage these pathways being established? How do the Government envisage the recognition of credits across institutions working so that they are transferable; in other words, who will shape the new provision for lifelong learners?
Thirdly, I urge the Government to use this as an opportunity to be more radical in creating new routes into some of the professions. The policy summary note accompanying the Bill says, incredibly disappointingly:
“There are some courses (such as nursing) which are not well suited to a credit-based system and will be treated as non-credit-bearing for fee limit purposes”.
Can the Minister explain why that should be the case, when we now have great flexibility—as a consequence of not being tied to a set of European regulations—to ensure that we design more flexible routes into nursing, still as a graduate profession? For mid-career switchers thinking about moving into nursing, the ability to do so in a modular way will probably be essential for more people to make that transition—as will the possibility to create ladders of opportunity for those working in social care, who wish to get a health professional qualification.
Just to be clear, I am not arguing that we should replace the current undergraduate nursing routes. I am arguing that they should be supplemented, and to rule out nursing ex cathedra from the very flexibilities that have been discussed today seems a mistake.
In summary, this is a welcome and sensible Bill but, to have a beneficial real-world impact, on the demand side, it will need to provide more support and flexibility for potential learners and, on the supply side, considerable action will be needed to stimulate appropriate new educational options with perhaps a degree of radicalism not yet evident in the Government’s current proposals.
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?
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.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the first time in this Chamber, and in support of this Bill’s aim of widening access to higher education. I look forward to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sewell of Sanderstead. I record my thanks to Members and staff for the consistently warm and generous welcome I have received and the helpful induction I have been given. If my experience of introduction to this House is typical, it speaks very well of the culture of this place.
On Thursday, it will be exactly six years since I was consecrated as a bishop at York Minster and took up my present responsibilities. The wonderful diocese I serve is made up of former steel-making and coal-mining communities across much of south Yorkshire, farming communities in parts of the East Riding and even a port in the town of Goole. I had never lived in south Yorkshire before but have found the city of Sheffield astonishingly green—I believe it to be the only city in England with a national park within its boundary.
Sheffield also boasts two professional football clubs: Wednesday and United. The former play in blue-and-white stripes, the latter in red-and-white stripes. Rather gloriously, both achieved promotion this past season. I am in the happy position of not having to choose between them but of being able to rejoice with them both, because my own football allegiance belongs—for historic reasons—to Newcastle United, who play in black-and-white strips. Noble Lords will understand the pleasure it gives me to don my club’s colours every time I enter this Chamber.
Every follower of Jesus Christ is a disciple. The word “disciple” simply means learner; almost by definition, therefore, every Christian is rather obliged constantly to be seeking to grow in knowledge and wisdom, in insight and skill. The Christian church is, therefore, again almost by definition, bound to be committed to the principle of lifelong learning and, therefore, to support any Bill which seeks to make lifelong learning more effective and more widely possible.
Personally, I recognise how privileged I am. I have benefited—at the expense of the taxpayer—from a world-class higher education studying for degrees in the traditional manner. I studied history as an undergraduate in Durham and then theology as part of my training for the ordained ministry in Cambridge. Subsequently, I undertook doctoral studies at Oxford. So I appreciate the value of scholarly immersion, of intense periods of lectures, seminars and tutorials, of reading and writing.
In ordained ministry, however, over the past 35 years I have served on Tyneside and Teesside, in the West Midlands, on Merseyside and in South Yorkshire. Immersion in these communities has left me in no doubt that a greater flexibility and access to higher education is urgently needed. Apprenticeship schemes have generally and lamentably languished in recent years. New initiatives are urgently needed to revive them or at least to fill the gap in training which those schemes previously met.
In the diocese of Sheffield, we boast two top-ranking universities: Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield. We also have the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. However, across the diocese as whole, we are equally as proud of our less-heralded colleges with HE provisions in Sheffield, Barnsley, the Dearne Valley, Doncaster and Rotherham.
I was at Rotherham College only last week to meet the staff responsible for its HE provisions and to hear from them about this Bill. Few of the HE students at Rotherham College are in a position to access the education I received; their domestic circumstances and accessibility to learning are often very different from my own, and they require more flexible funding arrangements. They may be combining higher education with employment or childcare in a way I never did. The shift envisaged in this Bill, to enable learners, including mature students, to access funding in a modular way, is surely right and good.
As noble Lords may be aware, no fewer than 11 universities in this country have a Church of England foundation and retain a Church of England ethos. Known as the Cathedrals Group, these 11 HE institutions educate 100,000 students a year. These learners, as much as any others, stand to benefit from the provisions of this Bill, to unlock new opportunities for lifelong learning and to support a greater plurality of routes into higher education. These are very laudable aims, and I gladly support them.
However, I came away from that visit to Rotherham College last week with some sense of the scale of implementation challenges which are bound to attend a Bill as ambitious as this one—for example, in the management of learning provision to ensure that supply is as flexible as demand; or on the impact of learners taking advantage of newly flexible grant arrangements to switch providers, perhaps multiple times, in the accumulation in their modules and credits. I realise there is much detail in relation to this Bill which still needs to be worked through, but could the Minister assure the House that the Government are aware of implementation challenges such as these and will address them, perhaps in Committee?
In closing, I note that my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry—the lead Bishop for the Church of England on FE and HE—would also add his support to this Bill, though he regrets he is unable to be in the House today. It is a great privilege to participate in this debate, and I look forward to many more such opportunities in the years ahead.
My Lords, I have a number of interests declared on the register in the higher and further education fields.
It is my great privilege and pleasure to welcome and applaud the excellent speech by my friend—he is my friend—the right reverend Prelate. I find myself the Spam, or maybe even the ham, between two maiden speeches. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, well and look forward to his speech. I will concentrate for a moment on the excellence of the speech just made by Bishop Pete.
Obviously, all of us who are resident in or have some association with Sheffield and South Yorkshire always like to hear the city and sub-region mentioned in the way that the right reverend Prelate has done. In his case, it comes from the heart because of his humanity and sense of place and emotion—backed up by his wife Cathy, whose books my wife Margaret and I would recommend to your Lordships. They might make your hair stand on end, but they have very interesting takes, including on the Church of England.
I thought that the right reverend Prelate’s maiden speech was an indication of his own understanding of and commitment to education—to the acquisition of knowledge and the ability to use it in the service not just of yourself but of others—and an understanding that the city and region he now serves were built on apprenticeships, crafts and artisan skills which were the measure of success in the past. It also showed why this modest but important measure can contribute, as my noble friend Lady Wilcox, on the Front Bench, said, to a jigsaw which adds up to offering people a way forward and a way out of disadvantage and poverty.
On his travels, the right reverend Prelate will accord that we see a lot of the challenges of intergenerational disadvantage in Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Some of it is because of the demise of steel and the mining industries and the lack of a proper transition. If anything, this small but important measure can help with the transition we are going to be making in the years ahead, both to net zero and to making the development of robotics and artificial intelligence a plus rather than a minus for people—something that will enable people to adapt and adopt new ways of working and experience new ways of learning. If we can do that, unlike the past, when major change often came at the disadvantage of the already disadvantaged, we can make it a trampoline by which they can learn.
Working together, I am looking forward to the right reverend Prelate’s contribution in future. I have given him only one small piece of advice: try to keep Prayers short, if you do not mind. It really helps us in terms of our enthusiasm to be in there, participating and listening.
I will add to what people have said only very briefly, because much of what I was going to put to the Minister—which I have already done privately—has been touched on on a number of occasions. We need to learn from that very small trial, that small pilot, and work out why people in the beginning of the process found it so difficult to be enthused or to connect. What relationship will these measures have to credit and modular learning and to information and adult guidance, which will be fundamental to people getting it right? Why not have smaller credit accumulation, as has already been described, so that people can get a foothold and perhaps move from five hours a week over 30 years to 10 or 15, perhaps with the help of their employer?
I am here today in many respects only because of the day-release class that I was able to take advantage of all those years ago. It is true that credit accumulation and a loan scheme of this sort could be blended with the entitlement given by employers, where people already have a job, or with part-time employment, which would be an opportunity for people to take their learning into new realms. It is also true, as has already been described, that the more flexible the opportunities offered, the more likely people will warm to them.
The figure given of only 70,000 people taking level 4 and 5 qualifications outside the university sector is extremely worrying, and anything we can do to ensure that that statistic is changed for the better has to be good. However, it involves being flexible about the nature of learning, how people are learning, and how providers can work together, not just in franchising but to make it possible for people to accumulate modules and to be able to exchange them and move from one provider to another in a seamless and rational way.
I finish with an appeal, which the Minister will appreciate. If there is to be a jigsaw, and small measures such as this are to be fitted in, there will have to be a degree of give and take and flexibility from the Department for Education and beyond. We cannot have people unable to accumulate the appropriate level 3 to move, whatever the distance and blended learning may be, to levels 4 and 5. If they have not got to level 3 in the first place, the chance of them doing that is zilch.
It is not just about getting it right for 16 to 19 year-olds, who my noble friend Lady Blackstone rightly mentioned, and not trashing T-levels, but giving students some degree of choice and ensuring that high-quality advanced qualifications are available for those whose maturity in both the emotional and educational spheres—their pedagogy learning—requires something different. All the runes tell us that, if we are not careful and do not moderate and allow a little give in the push to defund—in other words, to delay it slightly—there will be even fewer people reaching level 3.
Let us try to put the jigsaw together so that we encourage people to reach level 3, they move on to levels 4 and 5, and they come back into learning throughout their lives and take advantage of the greatest gift other than—the right reverend Prelate will forgive me as a Methodist for saying—the love of the Lord, which is education. Get this right and the Minister and her colleagues in the department might be remembered for something really good; get it wrong by being too rigid and they will be remembered only for a piece of the jigsaw that did not fit.
My Lords, I thank you all for the opportunity to give my maiden speech during this debate on lifelong learning.
Before I start, I must confess that my wife and daughter have warned me severely that I should not tell any jokes, because they claim you will not find me funny—a bit like dad dancing—so I shall try to refrain. I was also told to refrain from any football metaphors. That said, I am sure that many of you have been curious about this new signing: will he freeze in the penalty box or will he be the new Erling Haaland, able to deliver 50 goals a season and help my party to victory? As my mother would say, only time will tell.
I start by thanking noble Lords across the Chamber for taking me in in my first few weeks. I know many of you smiled as I pretended to know where I was going. I give a special call-out to the doorkeepers, who have been particularly friendly to me, with a great sense of humour—especially the ones from south London. I am also grateful to my noble friends Lord Godson and Lord Mendoza for introducing me to the House and for their continual mentorship, which has been really helpful.
My parents came here in the 1950s, as part of a group of Caribbean pioneers hoping to make some money then go back home. They did not, as a false myth would have you believe, come here to help build back Britain. They were not on some noble mission to save the mother country. However, like many, they stayed on, and soon owned their own home outright while supporting their relatives back in Jamaica and their own children here in the UK. If my parents were alive today, they would be proud of my achievements so far.
The idea of lifelong learning is appropriate, given my long-standing work in education. I am a trained teacher, a teacher trainer, an education researcher and a consultant. In 2002, I was lucky to be part of the board of the Learning Trust in Hackney, the body that took over the miserably failing Hackney education authority; I would like to link these comments with my friends Mike Tomlinson and Alan Wood. At the time, we faced an authority that was deemed not only the worst in Britain but the worst in Europe. Led by those two—as I said, I was grateful to be part of that team—we turned it around within five years. It became, as noble Lords know, one of the best authorities in the country, with the authority’s flagship Mossbourne Academy, which led to the academy movement that we know today. I am really proud to have been part of that movement.
STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects are key to the country’s development. Back in 2004, I had the foresight to create a pipeline programme, starting with 12 year-olds and developing them during the school holidays into a new generation of talent. I called that charity Generating Genius. It led to thousands of young people from poor and black backgrounds studying STEM subjects at university. In fact, when I visit Oxford colleges and hear a south London accent and wonder where it is from, it is often a student from our programme. It is encouraging to know that and to see their fruition—and the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, spoke a minute ago about starting early and building up.
The other key aspect of the programme is that we give young people fantastic career development by exposing them to a range of opportunities that their schools would never have the capacity to do. We have recently made the decision to share the programme across all income groups, across the country, from Hastings to Hartlepool.
In 2021, I chaired the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Using data from the Office for National Statistics, the commission disrupted the usual narrative and showed that many of the disparities in education, employment, crime, policing and health were founded on multiple and complex factors based on class, geography, family structure, and individual and group agency. I am happy to say that the Government accepted all our recommendations and produced an excellent policy document, Inclusive Britain. Racism persists on all levels; I am proud that the recommendations are delivering sensible solutions.
I now see my work as helping to champion a group that has been marginalised, misunderstood and maligned. I am talking about the British small farmer. As a fledgling farmer myself, I must declare my interest. We need to ensure that farming is linked to our developments in science, particularly in hydroponics, and the other green technologies that we in this country are at the forefront of developing. We need to make farming a real skill and aspiration for a new generation.
I am also interested in the need for skills development in young people. In the past, the cry was, “Education, education, education”—I daresay that it occurred across the House. The cry that we are all embracing now is, “Skills, skills, skills”. What emerged from my so-called race report was a recommendation for the Office for Students, the university regulator, to stop universities offering poor-quality courses or face tough regulatory action. We need more students doing vocational-related degrees, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.
As a farmer, an innovator, a developer of STEM skills and a change manager, I hope to make some humble contributions to the work of the House. I look forward to working with all noble Lords in this great Chamber of revision and scrutiny.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a visiting professor at Buckingham University, many of whose customers are adult learners. What a pleasure it is to follow those two outstanding maiden speeches. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield spoke about his scholarly immersion and his pastoral immersion, although he did not call it that, and gave us a distilled version of all the things he had learned. I hope it will be the first of many such contributions.
It is an immense pleasure to speak after and to welcome my noble friend Lord Sewell of Sanderstead. If one of the functions of this Chamber, and one of the purposes intrinsic in its composition, is to bring us a diversity of perspective and complementary skills and backgrounds then, as we have heard, he will be an outstanding contributor, enlarging our view and ennobling our debates. As we heard, he is the son of Windrush generation settlers who had the courage and enterprise to leave everything behind and start from the bottom in a new country, which should be honourable enough. I am conscious that Thursday is the 75th anniversary of Windrush, and it is slightly bizarre that we have to pretend that this was some kind of gap-year poverty tourism to help the post-war UK. There is nothing sordid about wanting a better future for your family; it is a very good thing. We are very lucky as a country to benefit from the energy and enterprise of people so motivated.
My noble friend then became an inner-city teacher, again not in any spirit of poverty tourism but because he wanted a job and was in the inner city. He became a successful role model to generations. There, he had the initiative to set up his STEM charity, initially getting black boys into STEM subjects. He has now widened it to cover underprivileged kids from all communities. Generating Genius is a terrific enterprise.
Something that your Lordships did not hear about him is that he was also a columnist and regular contributor to the Voice in the 1980s, when that newspaper was a model of intellectual diversity, variety and pluralism. There were meaningful debates about the role of family, the role of employment and so on, in a way that in our clickbait age almost every newspaper could learn from. We have become a lot more siloed.
He was also the author of that report, of course, and came in for a lot of flak, including from one or two Members of your Lordships’ House. But it is worth mentioning that the report he chaired was written by ethnic-minority Brits, all of whom had achieved distinction and excellence in a field other than the race industry. They were there because they were outstanding educators, economists, scientists or whatever. It is a glimpse of a future Britain where individuals from every background are judged according to their success in whatever field, rather than everything being dragged back into the old paradigm of race, although as we saw in the response to the report there are one or two who still want to drag us back there.
I support the Bill for the reasons that we have heard on all sides. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, gave an outstanding history of how lifelong learning has been a tool for the betterment of people throughout this country down the centuries. If they do not mind me saying this from the outside, the proudest boast of our labour movement in this country, in its broadest political sense, was the way in which it saw politics as a way of raising people up rather than tearing people down.
At the end of last week we had a debate on the role of freelancers. To repeat a point I made then, I look at my own children, one of whom is just starting school and one of whom is leaving university, and do not think that either of them will have a job as we understood that word in the 20th century. They will go through life constantly reskilling, freelancing and adapting to accelerating technology.
The old model we had, in which you go to school, work and then retire, has gone. We need to adapt in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of policy responses in how we see social security, pensions and employment law. But, above all, we need to change the model of learning. As artificial intelligence spreads, as the turnover of jobs speeds up and as more positions become obsolete while others are created, the need will increase for people to come back in, briefly, to learn the requisite skills. The role of government here is to facilitate; it is not to provide but to remove obstacles.
Had it been up to me, I am honestly not sure that I would ever have gone down the road of limiting fees in universities. How did the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, put it? He had a nice phrase about it being tailored to the circumstances of the student, not the mode of learning. I would have looked for ways to support individuals, but that debate has been and gone. Within the world in which we exist, the Bill removes some anomalies, tidies things up and creates a fairer opportunity for those coming later. I am conscious of the point my noble friend Lord Willetts made about the difficulty that older people have in taking on new loans but, in an age when people need to learn cutting-edge skills, there must surely be ways for Governments to provide that support.
The big picture, on which noble Lords from all sides agree, is the need to rethink the role of education. We need to create a kind of model in which people, at any point in life, are able to switch and reskill as needed. Doing so makes us not just more employable but more interesting and interested. It makes us more engaged, rounded and content.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of Cambridge University. Along with other speakers, I welcome the introduction of the LLE and hope that what is now proposed is just the first step towards creating an expanded and more flexible support system, spanning further and higher education. My comments will focus first on level 6 courses—traditional bachelor’s degrees. I will then venture brief thoughts on broader structural changes.
University campuses were silent and deserted during the peak of Covid-19. Two cohorts of students had a really rotten experience. Life has been gradually restored, but nobody expects full reversion to the old normal—nor should we wish for it. Lessons learned in the crisis should energise and accelerate some much-needed reforms of the whole post-18 education sector.
Most students are of course between 18 and 21, undergoing three or four years of full-time, generally residential education and studying a curriculum that is too narrow, even for the minority who aspire to professional or academic careers. This basic structure has prevailed since the 19th century, but universities have vastly expanded and now encompass about 50% of young people.
Post-18 education needs to be much more flexible and open, as fast-changing lifestyles offer new opportunities for both work and leisure, and technology offers new channels and opportunities. The system should offer everyone the opportunity to enter or re-enter, maybe part-time or online, at any stage in their lives. This path could become smoother, indeed routine, if there is a system of credits and modules that is respected and recognised across the whole system of further and higher education, thereby allowing transfers. Many will still pursue a traditional undergraduate course, using up their entitlement all in one go, but it is a real plus if they can instead choose to use the LLE à la carte—year by year or by a succession of modules at any stage in life.
Students who embark on a degree course but realise that it is not right for them or who have personal hardship should be enabled to leave early with dignity, with credits that formally record what they have accomplished. They should not be disparaged as wastage: they should make the positive claim that “I had two years of college and have an entitlement to return and upgrade later”. Indeed, the overwhelming focus on a degree needs revision. There is nothing magic about the attainment threshold that is reached after three or four years.
Another thing is that it would improve social mobility if universities, such as my own, whose entry bar is dauntingly high were to reserve a fraction of their places for students who do not come directly from school. They could thereby offer a second chance to those who were disadvantaged at 18 but have caught up by earning two years’ worth of credits at other institutions or online. Such students could then advance to degree level in two further years.
It is a sad fact that the worst educational inequalities are imprinted earlier in life in the pre-school years and during school education. It will be a long slog to ensure that high-quality teaching at school is available across the full geographical and social spectrum. However, promoting lifelong and part-time learning, with flexible assessment, would go some way to offering more support to those whose deprivations start in infancy and lead to barriers that become harder to surmount and to exclusions that offer no second chances.
What about the courses themselves? There is now, post pandemic, more experience of online and remote teaching. We can learn especially from institutions that had already spearheaded innovations pre pandemic, above all the Open University, and let us not forget Arizona State University in the US. We must hope, incidentally, that there is a sympathetic government response to the Open University’s well-based concerns that current proposals do not offer support to mature learners based a substantial distance away.
Purely online courses, the so-called MOOCs, have had an ambivalent reception. As stand-alone courses without complementary contacts with a real tutor, they are probably satisfactory only for level 7 vocational courses aimed at motivated mature learners studying part time. These courses should be eligible for support, but there will surely be a demand for vocational courses to develop skills at levels 4 and 5. These would open up an expanded role for new providers, many of them online, that do not possess the infrastructure of a regional college. There would then of course be a crucial need to ensure quality control via Ofqual. Indeed, it might be optimal for these courses to be overseen on a national scale by relevant professional organisations.
Accreditation and assessment of individual students is going to be challenge, and perhaps the Minister will say how this will be addressed. It is a challenge especially because traditional continuous assessment in non-practical subjects has been scuppered by the advent of ChatGPT and its successors. It should be possible for a student to be tested by some kind of examination board without having followed any particular course, rather as you can now take an A-level wherever or however you have been taught.
Although we must prioritise the case for the relevant skills and the economic situation in the UK, let us not focus too much on them. We heard about STEM, but we must also have STEAM, where A stands for the arts. Let us also not focus too much on the earnings boost engendered by courses. For instance, if advanced study enables a creative artist to become proficient enough to make a living by following his or her avocation, that is surely valuable even if they barely earn a living wage.
Finally, let us hope that the lifelong learning initiative does indeed promote what it aims to do, and that universities and other bodies are incentivised to release content. They should release content—excellent lectures, for instance—that are not just part of a course but can be watched free online in this country and around the world by those seeking education for its own sake and not for vocational reasons. In a society with vast technological change, the aims should be to widen people’s horizons and spread knowledge of UK culture, so that the life chances of young people are not constrained by what they have achieved or failed to achieve by the age of 21.
My Lords, I echo others in saying what a pleasure it is to follow those two excellent maiden speeches this afternoon. I draw attention to my interests in the register, particularly as visiting professor at King’s College London and as chairman of FutureLearn.
I sincerely welcome this Bill as it addresses a very important problem with our current funding system for higher education. Our system, modified by my noble friend Lord Willetts, is one of an income-contingent, time-limited graduate contribution towards the repayment of heavily subsidised loans for tuition and maintenance. In my mind it is the least bad of all available systems, but it does have three flaws.
The Bill is important in that it address one major flaw: the impact that our current system has had—as we have heard from many Members this afternoon—on lifelong and adult learning, which has been in crisis in this country for a decade. On its own, however, it is not enough, because it does not address two prior problems with our student funding system: the fact that our system has not allowed for tuition fees to rise with inflation, which has led to the progressive defunding of our universities, and the increasingly precarious dependence of our universities on international student tuition income, cross-subsidising domestic tuition and the important research that goes on in our system.
Sadly, this Bill does not address that problem. Nor does it address a related issue: we have a system that has no link at all between the quality of provision and the fees that institutions can charge for that provision. It is very important to have alignment between quality and funding; it seems to me essential that we put such a system in place. The coalition Government did attempt that under David Cameron’s Administration when they instituted a link via the teaching excellence framework, which resulted in the only year of inflationary uplift to tuition funding over the last decade. Institutions that participated in the teaching excellence framework were allowed to raise their fees from £9,000 to £9,250. Sadly, however, that sensible innovation lasted only one year, because a snap election resulted in the Government losing the majority on which the policy depended.
Since that time we have seen, effectively, a crisis whereby our institutions, so important to our future as a knowledge economy, are becoming increasingly financially vulnerable. Had we stuck with the mechanism that the Cameron Government instituted, we would not have a situation where, for example, UEA had a £40 million deficit this financial year; tuition fees would have been allowed to rise to around £11,700 for those institutions that acquitted themselves well in the teaching excellence framework; and we would have a link between teaching quality and funding, which any sensible system should have.
So, all that aside, it would be better if this Bill reinstated a link between quality and funding and made automatic an inflationary uplift in the upper limit of our tuition fee system, to put our universities on a stable footing. But that is by the by. The important thing is what this Bill does try to do; that is what is important today. The Bill creates a framework for us to move to a much more flexible system whereby we fund credits rather than years of study and enable people to dip in and out of learning throughout their lives. That is really welcome. I thoroughly support the objectives of the Bill and the framework that it creates for a much more detailed policy that is, hopefully, to come.
My concern, though, is about a policy that is in development at the moment in the department. There are lessons that we need to learn from the short-courses trial, which a number of Members have already referred to today. The trial is clearly struggling, with only 37 participants to date. That really is a paltry number, and I do not think it is sensible for us just to plough on and not try to learn some lessons from what is going on right now with the pilot and from the rather lacklustre response from providers—universities—in coming forward with suitable content for LLE funding.
There are potentially three lessons that we might preliminarily try to draw from what is going on with this pilot, and they are as follows. First, it is a mistake for us to focus so narrowly on level 4 to 5 courses at the expense of level 6 and level 7—that is, master’s—courses. Obviously, levels 4 and 5 are important, and I am not trying to say we should not have people doing level 4 and 5 study, but it is disappointing that modular degrees are not going to be available until the academic year 2027-28, almost a decade after the Augar report was commissioned and eight years or so after it landed. That is an inordinately long time for us to be getting off the policy drawing board into delivery mode for modular degrees, and I think the department could actively look at ways of accelerating that.
In respect of level 7, as the noble Lord. Lord Rees, said, it is important that we make modular funding available for level 7. Of course, master’s loans are available in non-modular form outside the LLE, but many people in work who already have level 6 qualifications will want to continue to progress to higher levels of educational attainment and will want to access level 7 courses. So I strongly urge the Government to remove their mental block on making LLE funding available for levels of study above level 7.
The second lesson that I suggest can be drawn from the pilot is about the minimum size of funding for which LLE funding will be made available. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said in his excellent speech, 30 credits is too large a block of funding both in terms of learning commitment and time and with regard to the amount of loan funding—probably over £2,000—that the learner will have to commit to taking out. Other countries’ experience is that blocks of study of 10 or 15 credits are a much more flexible way of getting this thing off the ground, and I urge the Government to be a bit more flexible regarding the minimum size of funding that LLE will make available.
My third lesson, and this is probably the most important one, is about the kind of provision that will be eligible for LLE funding. At the moment the Government are determined, as far as I understand, to replicate provision that already exists; it has to derive from an existing HE qualification. In effect, we are saying that we want more of the same but in smaller pieces. This is a big missed opportunity. We want to enable learners to access different kinds of provision from different kinds of providers in different shapes and forms. We do not want to create a policy framework that completely chokes off innovation at this stage. Learners, as Andreas Schleicher from the OECD put it in his recent HEPI lecture, will want to access many different types of provision from many different types of provider in lots of different ways, so I urge the Government to be a bit more flexible in the range of providers and the types of courses that they allow into the LLE funding regime.
Those are three early lessons that I would draw from the pilot. I do not think it is irremediable at this point. We are not going to launch the LLE until 2025-26, so there is plenty of time to get the policy right, but we need to crack on with it. In the meantime, I strongly support the Bill for providing the legislative framework for what I hope will be the skills revolution that Ministers want.
My Lords, it seems clear, from listening to the noble Lords, Lord Johnson and Lord Stevens, and my noble friends Lady Blackstone and Lord Blunkett, that there is a great deal of agreement across the House about the things that we need to address in this Bill. I for one am really rather looking forward to our sessions in Grand Committee because we might make some progress.
I congratulate my noble friend on her opening remarks and say how much I enjoyed the maiden speeches today. I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield that I forgive him for being from South Yorkshire, not West Yorkshire. In terms of football teams, if he put a flash of yellow in, he could of course support Leeds United, which would be a wise thing to do at the moment—they need all the support they can get. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, will make his own distinctive contribution to your Lordships’ House.
I wish to speak about why lifelong learning is so important and to pay tribute to the person who I believe helped to set us on this path many years ago. He has already been referred to by my noble friend Lady Blackstone. I had the privilege of working with Michael Young—later my noble friend, as he became, Lord Young—at the start of my working life at the Institute for Community Studies in Bethnal Green. Your Lordships will all know of Michael Young: sociologist, social innovator and reformer, and a politician. During his seminal research in the East End, Family and Kinship in East London being the most famous, and over years of research in those communities, he learned, as he put it to me over 40 years ago, that working people could not access higher education or university because they had to go out to work, usually when they were 15 or 16 years old. My noble friend Lady Blackstone, who modestly did not say that she is a former leader of Birkbeck College, mentioned the institutions which tried to address that over many years.
I know that is an obvious thing that working people had to go out to work in those days at 15 or 16. Speaking as somebody who was the first in their family to go to university, and is married to someone who was the first in his to do so, we come from the kinds of families where such a thing was not usually possible, however smart the person might be—my mum certainly was. Even if they managed to pass the exams which should have qualified them for higher education, family circumstances and the imperative of earning a living and supporting themselves and their family meant that it was out of the question.
It was not that some of them did not make it through the system—of course, they did. My father did an apprenticeship and was a master plumber. My uncle Jim became a draughtsman and helped to design fighter aircraft, but he was the exception in a large family stuffed with smart and ambitious people. We were of course very proud of him. To get a degree after you had started your working life was rare, so the Open University and the institutions that we are discussing today are to address the waste of talent and thwarted ambition.
Higher education became accessible to the likes of me and my generation thanks to successive Labour Governments’ support for and expansion of it. But that came from the recognition of Michael Young, because he looked, as he did in so many other areas of disadvantage, for practical solutions. We have Which? magazine at the moment, for example, because he set up the Consumers’ Association. Over the 1960s he saw the establishment of several institutions, with—it has to be said—a mutually useful political relationship with the man who became the Labour leader, Harold Wilson. There was a commitment for the Open University to be set up and included in the 1964 Labour manifesto, then to be in the Queen’s Speech and open for business in 1969. It was part of that Labour Government recognising the need for a leap forward in the country—Harold Wilson called it the white heat of technology—in science and modern education. Just like that, today, the Labour Party is launching its vision and mission for rebuilding our economy and greening our world. Who knows what innovations might be necessary or lie ahead with the radical shift that we may well need in our skills and education system?
Michael Young had to tackle the academic community and convince it that a robust degree could be achieved through distance learning and over a longer period. I expect the Minister and her colleagues have had to do much the same in recent times. He had to address the issue of preparing students to apply and be ready to study. In 1960 he created the Advisory Centre for Education and the National Extension College to do these things and achieve distance learning, using the tools then at their disposal.
The idea that new technologies such as radio and television could be used to bring education to a wider audience began to surface as long ago as the 1920s. “Dawn University” on Anglia Television became the prototype of the Open University, which was part of Harold Wilson’s vision. The partnership between two great institutions, the newly formed Open University and the BBC, used the technology that existed at the time to move forward.
Given the amazing availability of technology to assist learning, for the Government to have excluded distance learners from maintenance support seems a backward move if we are serious about lifelong learning and its accessibility. I ask the Minister to address that question. Currently, part-time students studying face to face are entitled to maintenance support, but the vast majority of part-time distance learning students are not. The introduction of the LLE could be a real opportunity to make this important change, which would bring greater access and flexibility to lifelong learning.
The promotion of flexible learning is why we support this Bill. It needs to be improved, but we absolutely support its core aims to widen participation and support student outcomes by allowing distance learners to take unpaid study leave or reduce their hours of work to focus on their studies. Recognising the ambition to study, learn skills and be more ambitious about lifelong horizons should lay at the heart of this Bill. It is good for industry and business, and for individuals and their families.
That leads me to my final points. As my noble friend Lady Wilcox said, we need to see the Government’s vision of what they are building. It is not entirely clear how this Bill and the previous legislation will promote lifelong learning, and what the Government intend to do to promote that demand. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said about the need to promote and encourage demand and the need for more flexibility. Indeed, I agree with the noble Lord’s remarks about the supply side and how that might be delivered. I have to say that I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, who asked: how will we know if this Bill has succeeded, and when? There is a large measure of agreement across the House on how we might improve it, and I look forward to working with noble Lords to do so.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for reminding us of the role of the Open University over many years. I spent over 30 years of my life working for the university. I share the concerns she expressed about the latter days; I think we had not really understood the negative impacts of the changes to the funding regime in 2010. I hope that this Bill will be one of the means of seeking to put that right. The noble Baroness’s point about a level playing field and equality of access for students following distance learning courses was very well made.
I join with others in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield and the noble lord, Lord Sewell of Sanderstead, on their excellent maiden speeches. I look forward to hearing their contributions in the months ahead.
I worked with other colleagues on the skills Bill, and it was clear then that the lifelong learning entitlement would need to be a key element of the Government’s skills policy. I am pleased about the consultation that has taken place on the Bill and the timing of its implementation, from 2025, which are very important.
The Bill is an important step forward for individual learning, for the economy and, crucially, as a number of speakers made clear, for improving the country’s productivity, for I believe that it will prove to be a key element of that. The opportunities for the green economy, such as the North Sea, the net zero hub on the Humber, the increasing need for more semiconductor industries and the need for battery manufacture, will all help to create clusters of new industries. That means that the skills required for those will need to be developed locally, using all the elements in the skills Act.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, said a moment ago, the nature of work is changing around us, and it will go on changing. We need the provisions in the Bill, which will enable people to keep learning over a much longer period than just the conventional three or four years. So I am supportive of the Government’s intentions with the Bill, which will make a huge difference to adults of all ages by allowing them to access learning flexibly during the whole of their lifetimes.
As the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said, the decline since 2010 surprised everyone. There has been a significant decline in adult participation rates in recent years, which are lower in England than in Wales and Scotland. The decline in participation since 2009-10 is over 40%, which is evidence that we need incentives and flexibility for adults to study so that it suits their own career planning.
The Minister may recall our concern about the whole package of reforms the Government are introducing and the extent to which T-levels will prove a success—I hope they will. It is about the financial strength of the further education sector and the success of apprenticeships. Not enough young people are being encouraged into apprenticeships from which they can then progress to the higher levels, if they start as a young person at a lower level.
I am pleased that the Bill will give access to loans equivalent to four years of post-18 education at levels 4 to 6. Level 7 was mentioned, and I am interested in how the Minister will respond to that. But it is good that, at higher, technical and degree level, it can be modular, part time or full time; that flexibility is evident in what the Government are saying. However, the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, and others identified the progression route from levels 2 and 3, and, from our conversation in our briefing last week, the Minister will be aware that there need to be pathways into level 4. We need to talk further about how we increase the participation rate.
I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, made about secondary legislation. I am probably one of those who thinks that we do not need everything to be in the Bill, simply because we may need to be very flexible about how we respond to things like demand.
My noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal talked about debt and maintenance support. These are real issues, and I hope that the Government look at the idea of the skills wallet, which has a lot to commend it. We learned in 2010 that older learners, with their higher domestic costs and household obligations, are less attuned to taking out loans when the outcome of taking out that loan may not be absolutely obvious to them at the time. I think that we need to have a debate on that, which we may be able to do in Committee.
One other issue I raised last week with the Minister is whether the universal credit system needs any adjustment to ensure that learners do not risk losing their benefits when undertaking a course. Anything that the Minister can tell us now or later would be useful.
In conclusion, a lot of questions have been asked, and I will not repeat them. However, the issue of careers advice and guidance has been raised by a number of speakers. There will be demand for substantial advice and guidance by individuals from institutions and professional bodies—and maybe from trade unions—all of which will have a role in helping. It is true that there is a wide body of support for this Bill, and I am included in that. It is a huge improvement, and it really matters that this is successful. All that we say at this stage and in Committee will relate to the fact that we want this to be a success.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, who was typically thought-provoking. I add my congratulations to both the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield and the noble Lord, Lord Sewell of Sanderstead. I understand from the latter’s speech that Sanderstead is near Haaland—that is an inside joke. Both showed great breadth, and they will add to our Chamber; I very much look forward to seeing them in the coming months.
I am also a supporter of this Bill. I was a Member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Social Mobility in 2015, which studied this area. Although our eventual report was on youth and the transition from school to work, we took evidence that was far wider. One of the people we took evidence from has just left her place: the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf of Dulwich. At the end of the evidence session—I have my notebook—she was asked what she felt should be taken away from it. I made a note of what she said and underlined it at the time. She said that we should move towards lifetime entitlements so that you can take things as and when you want. She said that then, but the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, reminded us that it has been rather too slow in coming. I very much agree with that, and that is why I am delighted that it is here now. The interesting thing about it appearing in the House of Lords, in a very short Bill with a very simple proposition which we all agree with, is that we immediately start looking at the detail and see that there is a host of issues. Our process is very much under way.
As I am near the end of the speakers’ list, I have quite an easy job, because I can say that there was one speech made that I would have loved to have made myself: that by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham. I agreed with absolutely every single word, and many other noble Lords have commended him on it. I do not want to pick out anything in particular from the speech, but the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned the flexibility point; it is a point that I very much associate myself with. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, made a number of similar points.
I will add to my probes with a few on devolution; I am a Scot, so I am naturally interested in the topic. I have two general areas to probe. First, the Bill extends to England and Wales but applies to England only. That is explained in the Explanatory Memorandum, as a slightly arcane point. However, we live in a union of four nations, so the natural question is: why is there only one nation included in the Bill?
We have, of course, a new system of interministerial groups, which meet regularly on various topics. The Interministerial Group for Education met in January, June and December last year, and in each case, on a fairly short list of topics that was covered, lifelong learning was one of them. So we know that it was at least being discussed there, but we do not know anything about what is being discussed in 2023, which is a difficult problem, and I am sorry that we do not. It seems unreasonable that we are not told fairly quickly about that—although that is not something that I am putting to the Minister. It would be very helpful if the Minister told us a bit more about these discussions. This is a UK House, and the Minister is a UK Minister. Could she tell us as well whether there are any expectations that the other UK nations will come forward with similar provisions, which would be very welcome?
The second general area on devolution—and this is the last point I am going to make—is how the Bill would work in technical terms. I have a few examples here, and I am not expecting the Minister to respond to them on the hoof. However, they demonstrate a little more what happens when you start dragging under the surface. For instance, if I max out in Wales, as a Welsh person, and then move to London, do I re-zero the clock? Can I borrow again and support myself? I would be delighted if that were the case but I do not know. If I do absolutely nothing in England then move to Scotland, will that mean that I have zero entitlement to do anything? I think I know what the answers are to those questions, but it is not written down anywhere, and no one else could possibly know it. My third example is this: if I am a Northern Ireland-based citizen, does none of this apply to me and is there nothing available to help support me? I could go on.
It would be helpful if the Minister could commit to providing some sort of written summary of the principles for people in the United Kingdom, from the different areas; all the various obvious permutations of what could happen could be explored if it could be written down carefully. That could be in a letter to me, or it could be some form of additional Bill document. In the meantime, I wish the Bill well.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who gave us some territorial conundrums just now—but I can assure your Lordships that he lives in a fixed location, as my neighbour on the other side of the Tay estuary. On their excellent maiden speeches, I warmly congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield and my noble friend Lord Sewell of Sanderstead.
I too welcome this Bill’s provisions and emphasis that fees and other costs must not be allowed to prevent or dissuade lifelong learning. Briefly, I shall mention three aspects and the extent to which each should be included within the Bill: first, online learning and research; secondly, an international focus; and, thirdly, informal education. All three are interconnected in any case and can also be viewed along with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to which today’s Bill seeks to relate.
The Covid pandemic restrictions illustrated the benefits and challenges of online learning. During its G7 presidency in 2021, the United Kingdom championed online learning, especially for girls in the global south. Since February last year, hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainian students continue their learning through online courses, many also in the United Kingdom. Education opportunities for disadvantaged groups and for students with physical disabilities can also be facilitated and improved through online learning. Online learning and research, since now being part of everyday procedures, should therefore be addressed in any Bill on lifelong learning. However, those of us who witnessed the regulatory uncertainties of online courses during the Covid pandemic also know that the value and potential scope were then, and still are, insufficiently recognised—an omission that I hope will soon be remedied.
Regarding an international focus, whereas the Bill has to begin, as it does, with learning at United Kingdom institutions, nevertheless for a long time higher education and lifelong learning have already extended beyond national borders. This also represents an ever-increasing opportunity for the United Kingdom, given its high standard of learning and research and the very great numbers of people who speak English throughout the world. Here, I declare an interest both as recent chairman of the Council of Europe’s Committee for Culture and Education and as having supported current working programmes between the UK University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland and the University of Zadar in Croatia. UK students improve their learning by going abroad, while our own institutions are enriched by admitting foreign students. These positive facts should be reflected in the Bill.
The Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which is to be amended by the Bill, stipulates in Section 38 the
“Duty to monitor etc the provision of arrangements for student transfers”.
Consequently, there is a strong case for reviewing Section 38 so that student transfers can be facilitated across international borders, especially within the European higher education area, of which body the United Kingdom remains an active member.
Student transfers across borders are adversely affected by high fees and other costs. Since we are not in the EU, European students do not qualify here for the lower fees that national students pay. Conversely, UK students are not entitled to reduced fees at higher education institutions in Europe. Equally, the huge financial support schemes by the EU, such as the Erasmus programmes, no longer benefit UK students and institutions.
We may recall that the total budget available for the Erasmus+ programme from 2021 to 2027 amounts to €26.2 billion. In 2020, Erasmus+ spent €144.25 million in the UK on grants for learning abroad and €83.22 million on grants for strategic partnerships. Given the high number of EU students having been funded by Erasmus+ at UK higher education institutions, the benefit to the United Kingdom from Erasmus+ was much higher than these two figures. If, post Brexit, we are to enable adequate learning opportunities, this purely national focus upon UK students has to be broadened. The remit of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill can, no doubt, allow that aspect to be addressed; and if fees are limited, grants should also be referred to.
Finally, although informal education falls outside the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, all the same it represents an increasing need requiring attention and regulatory support, especially in the field of lifelong learning. Private companies and public administrations alike have to keep their human resources fit for technological changes and globalisation. In addition to employment contexts, lifelong learning should also be available to the elderly, as well as to the unemployed. Informal education can have a much wider reach, in particular to disadvantaged people who have been hesitant to pursue formal education—for instance, due to high fees and costs, as well as strict procedures. Clearly, those individuals in our society must not be overlooked. Informal education ought to form part of community provisions. If lifelong learners and informal higher education providers so wish, courses and learning results ought to be monitored and recognised in the field of what is otherwise called informal education, the latter thus coming to have an option to be formalised and that option to be reflected in the Bill.
In summary, regarding these three outlined themes of online learning, international focus and informal education, your Lordships may agree that, when we come to Committee, we should seek to improve the Bill by supporting those themes with a number of necessary amendments.
My Lords, I much enjoyed the maiden speeches of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield and the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, and I look forward to doing so again in their subsequent contributions in your Lordships’ House. I just say in passing that the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, commented at the beginning of his speech on his proximity to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and I just say that in terms of the places named in our titles, the three of us occupy an area of some 20 miles along the banks of the River Tay, which I fully accept is of interest to no one else but the three of us—but there you have it.
In general, I welcome the Bill. Clearly, it is important that a minimum fee level is set, to prevent students being unfairly charged more for modular study than for a traditional academic year of study. I support the Bill’s aim of introducing a credit-based system as part of the development of the lifelong loan entitlement by 2025, although the Minister said in her opening remarks that the credit-based method will be phased in and so will not be fully in play for all courses and students by that time. Perhaps she could enlighten us as to the reasons for that, because I think it is unfortunate.
I am more than a little uneasy, though, at the detail missing from the Bill—other noble Lords have mentioned this. Integral features of how the entitlement and the credit-based method will work in practice are being left to secondary legislation, a device regularly employed by this Government, it seems, to avoid proper scrutiny. What is to prevent them unilaterally deciding to redefine, say, the nature of a credit or a module, and to make compliance with that change contingent on future funding? More needs to be included in the Bill to ensure it reflects what the sector wants and the economy needs. Otherwise, there is a danger it will not be properly effective in boosting lifelong learning.
I am particularly concerned about the effect of the Bill on distance learners, an issue emphasised by other noble Lords and by the Open University in its briefing to us. The Government’s determination to prevent distance learning students accessing maintenance support makes no sense at all to me. Only those with a disability who can show that distance learning is their single option are able to access additional study support in England, and this rule is now going to be extended to higher technical qualifications.
Financial support is of course a key factor if people with families and other responsibilities are to be encouraged and helped into more flexible lifelong learning routes. There is no shortage of evidence showing that introducing maintenance support makes a difference. To amplify the comments of my noble friend Lady Wilcox, the introduction of such support for part-time and distance learning students in Wales in 2018 produced a significant impact on demand for part-time learning. The Welsh Government continue to provide the most progressive student finance system in the UK and last week they announced a 9.6% increase in living costs support. In contrast, the Government here announced a 2.8% increase.
The Government made it clear in their response to the lifelong loan entitlement consultation that distance learners are to be excluded from the maintenance support available to face-to-face students. No rationale was given and no evidence was provided, despite the DfE’s policy impact assessment for the Bill acknowledging that financial issues are a major reason part-time learning places are not being taken up. Can the Minister say why she and other Ministers are apparently ignoring their own officials on this key matter? If the Government are serious about closing skills gaps in the economy, both existing and anticipated, then they really need to get a grip and accept that many of the people willing and able to reskill and upskill to fill these gaps are either unwilling or unable to take on classroom study. The Government should be promoting lifelong learning by providing greater access to financial support to meet existing financial commitments for distance learners, such as those with caring responsibilities.
Last month, I was privileged to visit Birkbeck, University of London, and to meet with the master, David Latchman, and some of his students. Now in its third century, Birkbeck has come through a restructuring and believes that the Bill will enable it to enhance its offer to people of all ages who have work or caring responsibilities during the day; I have no doubt that it will. Lifelong learning must mean just that—people should have access to training and reskilling throughout their lives—but there remain concerns that the entitlement could see some participants being saddled with substantial debts, especially if the Government fail to ensure adequate maintenance support. The Augar review pointed the way on this and offers a lifeline to those in low-income households.
The entitlement could be a game-changer, helping to build a lifelong learning culture in England, but I mentioned earlier some of the issues of detail that still need to be addressed. There are also wider issues of how it fits into the whole tertiary education landscape, including further education and apprenticeships. In its current form, the entitlement will not be sufficient to shift the dial in attitudes and change the behaviours and priorities of the vast majority of people who will still be intent on achieving a degree, mostly through a three-year residential model.
I will not rehearse the case for lifelong learning which the Minister heard me make on several occasions during the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill last year, but current skills gaps reflect the lack of investment in lifelong learning over the past 13 years. There has been a general neglect of adult education, with a consequent significant decline in levels of participation in it. That means millions of people are missing out on opportunities to retrain and upskill for a new job or career. Employers are unable to fill key vacancies where skills gaps exist, yet only one in three adults self-reports any participation in learning. The decline has been as dramatic for part-time study.
That must change. This Bill has the capacity to lead that change. There must be broad and consistent eligibility criteria to ensure that as many future learners as possible can upskill and retrain on an ongoing basis. Given the Government’s record on proposals to limit access to higher education, what plans can the Minister point to with the aim of extending this policy offer to as many people as possible, particularly those who are designated as hard to reach?
Employers should be central to the working of the new system being developed as part of the 2022 Act. What are the Government doing to involve them in the development of the entitlement? The Association of Colleges advocates piloting the entitlement or investing in place-based, sector-specific projects to show how it could work with employers engaged properly. Are the Government considering that route? There is also a risk that the policy results in the take-up of loans for short courses by employees who would otherwise be funded by their employers. As my noble friend Lady Blackstone said, it is vital that the lifelong learning entitlement should not become a substitute for employer-funded training.
It is not mentioned in the Bill, but I will not pass up the opportunity to once again remind the Minister of the real damage being done to young people through the ill-thought-out, rushed defunding of many BTECs and other applied general qualifications. As other noble Lords have commented, a delay on level 3 qualification defunding until a review on the impact of that defunding on level 4 and 5 participation is essential. There is widespread concern about the impact of the Government’s plans on both reduced opportunities for young people and adults and the future financial viability of some FE colleges.
I have often said that I share the aim of T-levels being successfully introduced, but until it is demonstrated that that has happened, abandoning popular and well-established qualifications will result in a drastic reduction in 16 to 18 year-old students being able to learn and achieve at level 3. Many already see no option which is attractive to them in the sector, trade or profession they want to enter. As my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, fewer learners achieving level 3 could lead to decreasing participation at levels 4 and 5, which would negatively impact the number of people able to take advantage of the lifelong learning entitlement.
The credit-based system set out in the Bill should be the default method of setting fee limits for new and continuing students from 2025. I look forward to our deliberations in Committee to help make that a reality.
My Lords, when you have listened to a whole debate in which various things have been covered again and again, it becomes ridiculous to mention them anything other than briefly. The main point has been that the mechanics of this Bill are largely welcomed. We agree that there is potential for this credit-based system and for lifelong learning. However, I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, who said to me in a conversation outside, “The Bill’s fine, but what about the big argument?”
It has come across that no one is quite sure how it fits together. People from higher education have looked at that sector; the noble Lord, Lord Watson, was one of those who led the charge on the previous Bill on further education; I looked at the Bill and saw a chance to improve the status of levels 4 and 5 by bringing them into a funding structure that is associated with universities. That may be a good thing. It should give somebody the chance to choose whether they want a three-year degree, the experience and the idea of the expansion, or a way of earning a living that they can top up later. That should come from this Bill, but the colleges and skills colleges would have to buy in and T-levels would have to work to get you ready for it. It is only a part of the system.
In looking at this, we can all point out problems that are not covered and, with new government legislation, what fun we will have with all those SIs. If we get them wrong, who knows where we will end up? Probably remembering the skills Bill, the Minister said that there were no Henry VIII powers in this Bill—I can quite understand why; that was one suicide charge I would not like to have taken.
We will have to get at how this all fits, with a little information from the Minister now and more in Committee. If we do not do so, we will just be saying, “Here’s another toolkit—play with it as you will”. I hope that, as we go through this Bill, we will get an idea of how the Government will use it with other bits of legislation to encourage people to give real options at levels 4 and 5. I say this because I remember being told in my second week here, getting on for four decades ago, that our major skills problem was at technician level. In modern money, that is levels 4 and 5. We have always been bad at this level. We tried to improve up to level 3 and beyond with apprenticeships, but then we discovered that there were limitations with them—primarily, that you need an employer who will pay.
How will we get colleges, even under the new funding regime and with the input of higher education, to make sure that there are real career options? The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, put his finger on it first—most of us thought that we would do it, but many of us would not have done it as well—in saying that short-term courses to upgrade your skill level will be attractive. Longer-term ones will be less attractive, particularly as you get older and may find that your skills, if they are technical, become outdated. This has always happened in the workplace. At the moment, we are in a green revolution; types of technology and power for technology will change and people will need to reskill. Short, bite-sized courses will be much more attractive for everybody—unless you put your life on hold, and it is very rare that you can do that over the age of 25. I hope the Minister will have some answers and the start of thinking about how that will happen.
I declare my interest as a patron of the British Dyslexia Association and chairman of Microlink plc, which deals with assistive technology and packages it for the disabled in the workplace and education. I hope the Minister can confirm that most of the people brought into these courses will be covered by the disabled students’ allowance or something very similar. If you are expanding their skills base, a system that gives them an individual package of support means that they will do it. You also have to make sure that colleges do something called information capture and the old level 1 DSA from a few years ago. That means that the colleges will undertake to record lectures so that they can be transferred on to different types of technology that people can use. Basically, it is about getting something that you can read yourself, can have read back to you or talk to normally.
I hope the Minister will say, if not now, then in Committee—I will certainly come back to it—what is happening there. If you expand the good news on higher education, you should commit to those people, who are underskilled, underemployed and should be brought in, that they will be assisted. The DSA is a good system for doing this because it gives you an individual package of support. This is required and instituted by having this huge institution buy-in. I hope we can clear this up pretty quickly.
This is an interesting Bill but it has got to be seen as a part of a whole approach that goes forward. It provides opportunities but no real answers to what we are doing here, and suggests that things are going to get better because we will apply it properly. Unfortunately, there are gaps and certain bits are left out, such as distance learning and level 3 and level 7 qualifications. Unless we get answers about those linkages, we are leaving a lot of questions hanging. I hope that some of those will be answered throughout further discussions today and when we are in Committee and on Report. This is something with the potential to be good. I hope the Minister will assure us that some of that potential will be realised.
My Lords, this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate, with considerable consensus on the need for the Government to facilitate lifelong learning. As someone who has benefitted from the best of UK higher education at Birkbeck and Edinburgh, I am interested in ensuring that we make the best of this Bill between us.
Like others, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sewell, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield on their excellent maiden speeches. They will no doubt both make valuable contributions to the work of this House. I also add my thanks to the Minister for her introduction and her engagement on the Bill so far. As the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, she is a listening Minister, and this is much appreciated.
The Bill before us today is about fulfilling the potential of this country. The UK’s economic prosperity depends on us getting this right. The more we invest in the skills that we need to grow the economy, the better able both individuals and communities, as well as this country, will be able to flourish. As my noble friend Lady Wilcox said at the start of the debate, the Labour Party supports the principle of a lifelong loan entitlement; it is fundamentally a good idea. As my noble friend Lady Blackstone said, it is also long overdue. The Association of Colleges has said that the lifelong loan entitlement could be a game-changer, and there is a welcome recognition of the value of FE and higher education. However, the Labour Party view—it has been reflected by contributions across the House today—is that the Bill could be even better. We intend to do everything we can to make it better.
In her speech, my noble friend Lady Thornton outlined the routes of the Open University and its significance to the labour movement. “Education, education, education” is not just a one-off strapline; education and skills are at the heart of the values of the Labour Party. As the Bill passes through this House, we would be keen to work with noble Lords from all sides of the House to ensure that it fulfils its potential in giving people the opportunity to fulfil theirs.
The huge number of questions from across the House today demonstrates, as the Open University has said, that there are too many unknowns about this Bill, in particular how the credit-based system and the LLE will work in practice. As many noble Lords have said, including my noble friend Lady Wilcox and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, this is a short Bill, and arguably it is too short. More clarity and more detail can and should be provided. Can the Minister provide the House with greater clarity on the definition of credits, minimum credits and maximum yearly credits, and why only levels 4 to 6 are covered?
Several noble Lords have questioned the narrow scope. My noble friends Lord Blunkett and Lady Blackstone asked why level 3 study, as a pathway to higher levels, was excluded. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, asked, why are some clearly vocational courses, such as nursing, excluded? As the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, asked, why are level 7 courses excluded? As my noble friend Lord Watson asked, how will the phasing in of credits work in practice? There are so many questions, and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
With a pilot that has arguably failed, what confidence has the Minister got that it is right to roll this out further at this stage? Even if, as the Minister says, there are no Henry VIII powers within the Bill, why are the Government not including systematic oversight and scrutiny? Why will future regulations not be affirmative? As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, intimated, the detail will be in the SIs, but we could do with a bit more detail in the Bill itself. We look forward to that discussion in Committee. How will the Government make sure that the promised flexibility of study is delivered in practice? As the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said, even the Government’s own impact assessment was not confident of the positive impact of the measures in the Bill.
There have been many questions raised, and I apologise for raising a few more. Will there be standardised transcripts and evidence of skills? As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, asked, will students be offered a second chance or dignity, and be able to take up education at a later date? What additional burden and costs will there be on universities and colleges as a result of the Bill? Have the Government had discussions with providers on how this will all be managed?
Given that the policy impact assessment accompanying the Bill is clear that the DfE believes that financial concerns are a key reason why part-time learners do not access higher education, can the Minister explain why the Government have not included distance learning to a greater extent within the remit of the LLE? Failure to include distance learning could disproportionately impact those with caring responsibilities and people with disabilities who are less able to move. As my noble friend Lord Watson said, it seems that the Government are ignoring their own officials. Will they reconsider these points?
As the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, noted, online learning could and should be included. As he said, and as others mentioned, with so many courses having to go online during the pandemic, it seems frankly bizarre and out of step with how our society is now organised to exclude online learning. Will the Government reconsider this? I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that point.
My noble friend Lord Blunkett reflected on how we have not always met new challenges when employment industries have changed and the employment market has shifted. He described what is needed and what this Bill could offer as a trampoline. The UK needs the most adaptable, flexible approach to learning and skills. The world is changing rapidly, and people will have to adjust and learn new skills throughout their careers as the workforce and world changes. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, described this as an essential aspect of increasing productivity, but as he and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, said, adult learners will not always be willing to take on debt.
We also need employers to take on some of the risk. As has been noted during this debate, employers in the UK are failing to invest in the skills system, with a drop in spending by 28% in real terms since 2005. In fact, employer investment in skills is less than half the EU average. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, said, with people not now having a job but a series of jobs, both government’s and employers’ facilitation of increasing skills is vital. Can the Minister tell this House what the Government will do to improve investment by employers in skills and what safeguards they will put in place to avoid employers investing even less in future as a result of the Bill?
As my noble friend Lady Wilcox said, this is a devolved matter, and currently students in Wales get considerably more support than in England. Given that the Bill applies solely to England, and given some of the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, can the Minister tell us how this will apply to students who wish to move between different parts of the UK or who move at different stages of their lives? How will this Bill work—I declare an interest as someone whose husband moved to the UK as an adult—for those who have not lived in the UK their whole lives? Will someone who wants to go and study overseas for part or all of a course be able to do so? What are the limits on this?
Getting this right, and getting the right advice at the right time, will be crucial to people using the lifelong loan entitlement to best effect. Can the Minister say whether any advice offered in relation to the lifelong loan entitlement will form part of a wider all-age careers offer than is made at present?
In conclusion, I repeat that Labour welcomes the lifelong loan entitlement. It could give people without the financial means to do so the opportunity to gain skills and education at the point in their life and career that they need it and, by doing so, help both their own careers and the UK economy to grow. We want to help make this Bill be that game-changer. When we and others put forward amendments in Committee, which we will do, it will be with the intention of making the Bill the best it can be. We are keen to work with the Government and Members on all side of the House to make sure this Bill delivers what it is intended to deliver.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions today. In particular, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield for his description of lifelong learning within a Christian context—I think he will agree with me that just sitting in this House listening to colleagues extends one’s lifelong learning still further—and my noble friend Lord Sewell. I am not sure about his football metaphor, but if he is secretly a spin bowler, I think he might find himself popular at Edgbaston in the next day or two. In all seriousness, I look forward to working with and listening to him, with his great experience in education, and benefiting from that.
Given the breadth of your Lordships’ contributions, I will not be able to cover everything in the time available to me, but I will write and address the points raised this afternoon. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, that I will try to address at least some of the points that she rightly raised. I acknowledge and thank noble Lords for the spirit of the House and the way in which they are all aiming, in the noble Baroness’s words, to make the Bill the best it can be.
I start with the credit transfer issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, the noble Lords, Lord Stevens of Birmingham and Lord Rees of Ludlow, and others. The Government will not impose credit transfer arrangements but will instead seek to facilitate credit transfer through other methods, including through the introduction of the requirement for providers to produce, in response to the noble Baroness’s request for clarification, a standardised transcript on the completion of individual modules—I hope that also addresses the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rees—and, to respond to points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, in relation to information, advice and guidance about the personal account where possible. There are numerous examples of good practice in the sector with regard to credit transfer, including provider-led initiatives to create credit transfer partnerships. These include collaborative mapping and shared curricula of certain programmes—including, of course, in healthcare.
Credit transfer across higher and further education will be very important. We are working with providers to understand how credit transfer can be encouraged without jeopardising the autonomy of the sector, giving learners the flexibility to study at a pace that is right for them while balancing their other commitments. Of course, this will require input from both government and providers to be successful, and that is happening.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, raised a specific question about why some courses, such as nursing, are not suited to the credit-based system. I think he expressed a concern about whether that would limit flexibility, but our understanding is that it will not. Nursing degrees do not use credits in a consistent way—as the noble Lord understands much better than I do—due to variations in the credits assigned to placements, and because credit-bearing units can cut across multiple years. We will address this by using a default number of credits to calculate the fee limit for each course year, and students will continue to receive loan funding—but I would be happy to meet with the noble Lord if he thinks that there are flaws in our analysis.
I permitted myself a small smile at the fact that the House was divided on the merits or otherwise of delegated powers in relation to the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked about the timing of the secondary legislation. We expect the secondary legislation covering the fee limit and the LLE to be laid by autumn 2024, in time for implementation in 2025. The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, suggested that not all the delegated powers were subject to the affirmative procedure, but all the fee-setting powers are subject to it. As I mentioned in my opening speech, the powers mirror what is already in HERA.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked whether there was a risk that the Government could arbitrarily change the number of learning hours in a credit. As my right honourable friend the Minister for Skills and Higher Education said in the other place, the Government do not intend to change the number of learning hours in a credit unless standards in the sector change. Learning hours are, and should continue to be, based on sector-led standards.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and others asked whether the Government were working closely with providers and stakeholders to inform policy decisions. I reassure your Lordships that that is the case.
If I may, I will write to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on the issues he raised around devolution. He is right that policy detail is discussed very regularly with the devolved Governments, but I am happy to write and answer some of his quiz questions about different students in different jurisdictions for different periods of time.
As for the speed of the rollout, a number of noble Lords raised their frustration at the slow pace. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, in 2015. I will take this opportunity to thank the noble Baroness for her very important work in this area. As I think your Lordships are aware, full courses will be LLE-funded from 2025. That includes full degree courses, higher technical qualifications and any advanced learner loan-funded qualifications where there is clear learner demand and employer endorsement.
The Government will be taking a phased approach to modular funding, making sure that there is clear employer demand and that they address skills gaps to support learners into the jobs that employers need. As your Lordships discussed, the initial focus from the start of the academic year 2025-26 will be on modules of higher technical qualifications and modules of technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5 currently funded through the ALL system where there is a clear line of sight to an occupational standard and employer support. That will allow us to test and learn from the approach before extending funding, where appropriate, to modules of other high-quality courses at levels 4, 5 and 6. I remind your Lordships that the Augar review was very clear in its recommendations to focus on the skills gap identified at levels 4 and 5.
A number of your Lordships, including my noble friend Lord Johnson, recommended exploring expansion of the Bill’s scope in relation both to micro-credentials and to levels 3 to 7. I understand the flexibility that your Lordships seek to create by including micro-credentials, but we have been clear that, in the words of Sir Philip Augar:
“A 30 credit course, in our view, represents a significant amount of teaching and learning, and is an appropriate minimum for upskilling or reskilling. It is also short enough to be combined fairly easily with work and other commitments”.
I remind the House that modules of a smaller size—my noble friend referred to modules of 10 to 15 credits—provided they can be bundled together in a single entry from a parent course to meet 30 credits, can be funded to allow sufficient flexibility for retraining. So funding would be available for, for example, a 20-credit module and a 10-credit module of the same course combined. Providers or awarding bodies are free to consider restructuring their courses into credit-bearing modules of different sizes.
Turning to the issues of inclusion of level 3 and 7 courses, raised by several noble lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Shipley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, I understand why the House is probing this issue, but there are three main reasons for the focus the Government have announced on level 4 to 6 courses. The first relates to how the LLE itself will apply to level 7 courses; the second relates to the existing funding for level 3 courses, in particular; and the third relates to the economic opportunities created by greater uptake of levels 4 and 5. Of course, in the longer term the Government will consider how funding for level 3 provision can best work where individuals are not eligible for grant funding, as part of the next spending review.
I will start with level 7 qualifications. The LLE will be the student finance system for all study at levels 4 to 6 from 2025, across HE and FE. Integrated master’s courses will also be in scope. My noble friend Lord Willetts asked about the Government’s appetite for four-year honours degrees. One form of that, of course, is an integrated master’s. In 2021-22, there were just over 19,000 English-domiciled entrants to integrated master’s degrees, and these students will continue to benefit from this level of study via the LLE. More broadly, level 7 and above are already served by separate student finance products such as postgraduate master’s and doctoral loans.
In contrast, level 3 courses are funded for a range of individuals through other funding streams, such as free courses for jobs and the adult education budget. In addition, individuals will still be able to take out advanced learner loans for level 3 courses. The adult education budget includes a statutory entitlement to full funding for eligible adult learners aged 19 to 23 undertaking their first full qualification at level 3, and the free courses for jobs offer introduced in April 2021 gives eligible adults the chance to access high-value level 3 qualifications for free, which can support them to gain wages for a better job. Finally, the point has been made by your Lordships that—and as I said my opening speech, we believe that—there is a very strong economic case for focusing on levels 4 to 6, given the skills gaps we face in the economy.
A number of your Lordships—my noble friend Willetts, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield—talked about what perhaps I may describe as the implementation challenge from both a supply and demand perspective. The noble Baronesses, Lady Wilcox and Lady Thornton, both asked about maintenance loans for distance learners. Our emphasis, with the exception of those with a disability who, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, pointed out, are eligible for those loans, is on making sure that these courses are as flexible as possible, including, potentially, distance learning. I think there was some confusion in the House about the status of online learning, which is of course part of distance learning, as rightly said by my noble friend Lord Dundee. Our emphasis is on making sure that these courses work for those leaving school or who are already in employment, and who have that flexibility. There is an enormous job to be done by the Government and providers in raising awareness of those opportunities, making sure that people feel confident to take them up and are clear on the improvement they can make to their future employability, earnings power and satisfaction in the workplace.
On the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, and others about the cost of delivering this provision, costs are relatively fixed in the provision of these courses, so volume will be extremely important to their viability from a commercial perspective. I again suggest to the House that there is something in our absolute focus on where we are starting that aligns with the pressures that providers face, in order to make sure that these courses are commercially viable, rather than spreading a large number of learners very thinly across multiple courses.
I shall try to speed up a little, the House will be relieved to know. On the quality of provision, which I know my noble friend Lord Johnson was concerned about and which the noble Lord, Lord Rees, raised, the Office for Students will continue to regulate providers and uphold quality. It will consult on introducing a new registration category for providers of courses that were formerly funded by advanced learner loans—including initial and ongoing conditions that would be appropriate—which we hope will support quality. On my noble friend Lord Johnson’s point about all future modules being derived from existing qualifications, to be clear, they will need to derive from an HE qualification, but not necessarily in future from an existing one, although clearly the initial modules are likely to do so.
A number of questions were raised about the short course trial, and perhaps it would be most helpful if I set out our learning from the trial in a letter. But I will include in it a link to an excellent blog, written by Professor Peck from Nottingham Trent University about the trial, on the HEPI website, for your Lordships’ interest.
On part-time learners and maintenance loans, a point raised by a number of your Lordships, the LLE maintenance offer will be available for part-time study below level 6. That is a major change and positive step forward from the current system, as the vast majority of part-time level 4 and 5 courses do not currently qualify for the maintenance loans. Although I absolutely heard the regret from a number of your Lordships about maintenance in respect of distance learning, I hope it will be acknowledged that this is a really important step forward.
My noble friend Lord Willetts asked how dropout rates will be measured in the new system. The Office for Students plans to consult next year more broadly on the B3s—the quality or performance measures for modules. It will be consulting on how they can be implemented, and there will be an initial call for evidence this year.
There is so much that I have not covered, and I apologise to the House for that. I will finish where the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, started in asking about the Government’s vision for the Bill. I stress the importance that the Government place on the Bill; your Lordships may have noticed that my right honourable friend the Minister for Skills and Higher Education has been present throughout the debate. I will steal the words of the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, if I may: our vision for the Bill is that it is part of the jigsaw he described but also that it will help to deliver to every individual in this country clarity on their personal ladder of opportunity and on the fact that they have hope and a real sense of opportunity for themselves in their career. Through it, we will transform the productivity of this country.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.