HE loan reforms to aid segmented study and reskilling

Higher education loans are to be made more flexible to allow adults and young people to space out their learning over a lifetime and take more high-quality vocational courses in further education colleges or higher education and retrain for jobs of the future.

The announcement was made by United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he set out plans on 29 September to transform the training and skills system, making it “fit for the 21st- century economy”, and help the country “build back better” from coronavirus.

Johnson said: “The British economy is in the process of huge and rapid change, driven by the internet and the possibilities of remote communication.

“But as old types of employment fall away, opportunities are opening up with dizzying speed – vast new sectors in which this country already leads or can lead the world.”

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

He said the UK had fallen behind other countries in technical skills, however, partly due to ‘snooty’ attitudes to vocational qualifications.

Announcing a Lifetime Skill Guarantee, Johnson said: “We’re transforming the foundations of the skills system so that everyone has the chance to train and retrain. So my message today is that, at every stage of your life, this government will help you get the skills you need.”

A statement issued by No 10 Downing Street, explained that the government is committed to making higher education more flexible to facilitate lifelong learning, and to make it easy for adults and young people to break up their study into segments, transfer credits between colleges and universities, and enable more part-time study.

This new arrangement will provide finance for shorter-term studies rather than having to study in one three- or four-year block.

Adults without an A-Level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free, fully funded college course – providing them with skills valued by employers, and the opportunity to study at a time and location that suits them.

This offer will be available from April in England and will be paid for through the National Skills Fund.

These reforms will be backed by continued investment in college buildings and facilities, including more than £1.5 billion (almost US$2 billion) in capital funding, with more details to be set out later this year.

According to No 10, the coronavirus pandemic and changing economy is why the prime minister is developing a long-term plan to ensure that, as work changes, people can retrain, upskill and find new, well-paid jobs.

Training structure flexibility

Apprenticeship opportunities will also be increased, with more funding for SMEs taking on apprentices, and greater flexibility in how their training is structured – especially in sectors such as construction and creative industries where there are more varied employment patterns.

In 2000, more than 100,000 people were working towards Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, but that number has reduced to fewer than 35,000 now. The figure for those doing foundation degrees has declined from 81,000 to 30,000.

As a result, only 10% of adults hold a Higher Technical Qualification as their highest qualification, compared to 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. This is despite the fact that, five years after completion, the average higher technical apprentice earns more than the average graduate.

“That is why the government is committed to making higher education more flexible,” the statement said, to enable the break of study into chunks and encourage more part-time study.

According to Universities UK (UUK), about one in four adults could benefit from changes to allow more adults to study in shorter and more flexible courses at university, to reskill those affected by the COVID-19 economic downturn.

Currently, to be eligible for financial support for higher education, students must commit in advance to a qualification and take on at least 25% of the work of a full-time course. This commitment is too big for many to make, including adult learners who wish to balance study with other employment, family and caring commitments.

A situation in which they could receive funding and targeted maintenance grants to effectively build up their qualifications over time through flexible study could open the door for thousands of potential ‘lost learners’, UUK says.

Digital skills boot camps

The government is also committing £8 million towards digital skills boot camps; expanding successful pilots in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and introducing programmes in four new locations.

From next year, boot camps will be extended to sectors like construction and engineering, “helping the country build back better” and supporting the ‘refreshed’ Industrial Strategy.

Earlier this year, the government launched its free online Skills Toolkit, helping people train in digital and numeracy skills. This is being expanded today to include 62 additional courses.

Some £2.5 billion is also being made available through the National Skills Fund to help get people working again after COVID, as well as giving those in work the chance to train for higher-skilled, better-paid jobs.

Commenting on the prime minister’s speech on adult learning and skills, Professor Julia Buckingham, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London, said the new approach to higher education funding could benefit millions of adults: “We have long campaigned for changes to student funding to better support flexible, part-time and adult learning. Today’s announcement is an initial step in the right direction.”

She said there is a strong economic imperative to improve flexible learning, and UUK is pleased that the government has recognised the role universities can play in addressing skills shortages and upskilling existing employees.

“There has been a marked decline in adult learning in recent years, and as the nation looks to recover and rebuild from the impact of COVID-19, now more than ever we need fresh thinking and policy change to help people of all ages and backgrounds to reskill and retrain,” she said.

“Many universities are ready to scale up alternatives to the traditional three-year degree, and give more people chances to study elements of a course in a ‘bite-size’ learning model.

“This would allow people to develop skills in areas such as digital, entrepreneurship, business and public-sector management, which will all be likely to benefit the UK’s recovery and boost local economies.

“It would also help those out of work in certain sectors – such as construction, engineering, and aviation – which have been hit hard by the pandemic,” she added.

Degree apprenticeships plea

Dr Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, the Association for Modern Universities, said degree apprenticeships should be at the heart of the reforms.

“Combining an apprenticeship with a degree is a good way of making learning portable, as the PM wishes our skills system to be.

“Such portability will also be aided by introducing greater flexibility to the student loan system, something MillionPlus has long called for,” Walker said.

“The government should ensure that its reforms enable individuals to access financial support for standalone level 4 and level 5 courses at university as well as FE colleges. This support should also be available to part-time students.”

Business leaders welcomed the government announcement. Paul Geddes, CEO of QA , which claims to be the UK’s largest tech talent and training organisation, said “We’re delighted to hear about the government’s commitment to closing the digital skills gap in the UK, and particularly the announcement of an £8 million investment in digital skills boot camps.”

As a partner in one of the pilot boot camp programmes in Greater Manchester, he says it is possible to train people with the right aptitude, regardless of their educational background, to a job-ready standard in some of the most in-demand digital skills such as software development in as little as 12 weeks.

Clare Barclay, CEO of Microsoft UK, said: “Individuals, businesses and government must build the skills we need for tomorrow. If we fail to act now, the UK could easily be left behind in the global economy.”

What will employability mean in the digital age and how should higher education adapt? This free webinar, hosted by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation, is being held on 28 October 2020 at 10am in New York, 2pm in London (GMT) and 4pm in South Africa. You can find out more details and register to participate here.