Amendment 91A

Skills and Post-16 Education Bill [HL] - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 21st July 2021.

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Baroness Berridge:

Moved by Baroness Berridge

91A: Clause 15, page 18, line 17, leave out “In section 83(1) of”Member’s explanatory statementThis is consequential on the Minister’s second amendment at page 18, line 17.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I beg to move Government Amendment 91A and speak to Amendments 91B, 91C, 99C and 99D in my name. These are primarily aimed at amending Clause 15, which in turn amends the definition of “higher education course” in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to make express provision for the regulation of modules and to make clear what a module of a higher education course is as distinct from a full course.

The current student finance system does not offer funding for modules, nor is there any fee maximum for such modules or a specific corresponding regulatory system. The lifelong loan entitlement will transform student finance by supporting more flexible and modular provision. This legislative change is needed to ensure that we can deliver modular provision. Taken with the amendments that we have previously laid, this clause makes specific provision for modules in Part 1 of HERA 2017, which relates to the regulatory regime under the Office for Students. The amendments also relieve higher education providers, the OfS and the designated quality body of certain additional burdens which would otherwise arise from the addition of the concept of modules under HERA. These relate to certain requirements to provide or publish information—for example, under Sections 9, 11 and 65 of that Act. We want to reduce bureaucratic burden on providers, and these changes will ensure that the introduction of funding for modules through the LLE will not add to this.

Clause 26 sets out the territorial extent of the provisions in the Bill. This is a standard clause for all legislation. In essence, and with minor technical exceptions, the LLE provisions extend to England and Wales but apply in relation to England, because we are making amendments to the English student finance system. Overall, these changes will help to pave the way for more flexible study and for greater parity between further and higher education. As noble Lords will be aware, we will be consulting on the detail and scope of the lifelong loan entitlement this year. Our commitment to supporting students through the LLE is a key consideration in the public consultation which we will launch in due course. This will include seeking views on specifics of our regulatory system.

Photo of Lord Johnson of Marylebone Lord Johnson of Marylebone Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

My Lords, I speak to Amendment 92 in my name and draw attention to my interests in the register, as chair of TES, the education software and information group, and of Access Creative College, an independent provider of training for the digital and creative industries.

Amendment 92 is a probing amendment, to test the Government’s ambitions for the lifelong loan entitlement and to probe their assumptions about what provision is worthy of funding under it. We do not yet have critical details on the LLE, for which the Bill provides the legislative underpinning. That will emerge only following the consultations that the Minister has just mentioned, and then in secondary legislation due in 2024, ahead of the LLE’s actual introduction in 2025. In theory, the combination of the LLE and the introduction of the system of modular funding that the Minister has just mentioned, for sub-degree chunks of study, will make it easier for adults and young people to access learning in a more flexible way, to space out their studies and to earn while they learn if they wish.

Since 2012-13, English HE students have been eligible for loans only if they are studying at an intensity of 25% or more of a full-time equivalent course and are following a full course for a specified qualification, hence students studying individual modules or shorter courses of less intensity have not been eligible for loans. This has been an important factor in the decline of part-time adult learners. The LLE will, in theory, help to address this problem—therefore so far, so good, and I very much welcome it.

However, there is real complexity involved in the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, and a danger that theory and practice might diverge in crucial ways in certain respects. One of the main sources of danger is that the Treasury, partly out of its desire for quick savings from higher education in the spending review, may water down the promised skills revolution by insisting on retaining the so-called equivalent or lower qualification rule. Indeed, I expect that the Treasury will put up a valiant attempt to keep the ELQ rule whatever the consultations on the LLE say when they are eventually produced.

The traditional rationale for the ELQ restriction is that funding available for student support is finite and that it is necessary to put in place limits to ensure that all eligible students who wish to enter HE for the first time can do so. Accordingly, the ELQ rule prevents those studying a second HE course, at an equivalent or lower level, from receiving tuition fee loans or maintenance support for the course. For example, if you study classics for an undergraduate degree in your 20s at UCL, you could not then reskill in your 30s by undertaking a diploma in graphic design at UAL.

Restrictions apply even to those who previously followed privately funded courses which they self-financed. These ELQ restrictions seem complex and very unusual, when you look across the global HE landscape. For example, they do not exist in Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, whose HE systems are quite similar to England’s. The obvious trouble is that the ELQ rule not only constrains student choice about how best to retrain if they already have a qualification but treats tertiary education—post-18 education—as a one-off event, rather than as part of a process of lifelong learning in a world in which people can expect to have multiple careers over their working lives. Keeping it will therefore make a nonsense of the entire lifelong loan entitlement.

My contention is that any savings which the Exchequer might make on the subsidy in the loan book from retaining it are outweighed by the broader economic costs incurred by making it so difficult for students to change subject and retrain for new careers. We need a serious economic impact analysis of the ELQ rule before we can consider the secondary legislation on the LLE. Indeed, since it was introduced in 2008, various Governments have already effectively acknowledged the flaws with the ELQ by peppering it with ever more complicated exceptions, such as those applying for medicine, dentistry, and initial teacher training. Part-time ELQ exemptions have been made for engineering, computer science and technology, extended to STEM courses in 2016-17. In 2018 further exceptions were made for nursing, midwifery, allied health professions, and so on.

ELQ restrictions were possibly appropriate for a restricted grant-based HE system, but, under the current loans-based system, they are anachronistic and antithetical to the broader objectives of the Government’s skills reforms. That is why the 2019 Augar report rightly recommended that the ELQ rules be scrapped entirely for those taking out loans for levels 4, 5 and 6—yet nothing has happened since.

Two things seem to underpin the Government’s reluctance to remove what remains of the ELQ rule. First is the Treasury’s flawed—in my view—conception of value for money, which crudely measures the worth of the course by how much students repay of their loans. Secondly, there is an entirely misplaced belief in Whitehall’s ability to predict the skills needs of the economy and to operate a kind of modern-day Gosplan through number controls on particular subjects deemed to be oversupplied and out of kilter with the needs of the economy.

If Covid has taught us anything it is surely that we need to value socially useful but lower-earning professions. I am far from convinced that the Treasury’s reliance on the LEO data or belief in its ability to do this micro workforce planning is actually delivering good policy. As my noble friend Lord Willetts said on Monday, we need a “wider range of perspectives”—earnings data cannot be the “be-all and end-all” of education policy. As my noble friend Lord Lucas put it, it is simply much too “one-dimensional” an approach.

We have already seen this short-sighted approach to value for money at work in the rules governing access to the lifetime skills guarantee, which offers funding for those who are 19 or over and do not already have a level 3 qualification. The current list of level 3 qualifications for which the Treasury is allowing funding via the lifetime skills guarantee is far too restrictive, with Ministers stating that this narrow group of courses has been selected principally on the basis of their wage returns. It is striking that, as a result, there is not a single creative arts and design course on that list. In my view, it speaks volumes about whether the Government really do understand the value and importance of the creative industries.

My fear now is that the Government will use this legislation’s fine print and the operation of the lifelong loan entitlement to effectively defund level 4 to 6 courses that have lower rates of repayment via a possible combination of student number controls, frozen or selectively reduced tuition fees and tougher minimum entry requirements. If adopted, this approach would, once again, particularly penalise the creative arts and design courses that fuel some of the country’s most promising creative industries, including those mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and including games design, music production and technology, fashion and textiles and the performing arts.

Of course, it would a false economy. The creative industries were growing two and a half times faster than the rest of the economy as a whole in the decade leading up to Covid. Presumably, they were generating enough tax revenue for the Exchequer to repay the Government’s subsidy to creative courses in the student loan book many times over.

The Government seem to have a sense that universities have piled in to creative arts provision and that it has grown like some kind of Japanese knotweed, absorbing an ever-greater share of subsidy in the loan book since the removal of student number controls. This is factually wrong, and it is important that the Treasury recognises that. HESA data shows that 167,000 students were enrolled in creative arts and design courses in 2014-15, representing 7.4% of the student body. There were 187,000 students enrolled in such courses in 2019-20, again representing 7.4% of the student body. Yes—there has been a 12% increase in the number of such students over six years, but that is entirely in line with the growth in HE enrolments across the system as a whole and no more than that. Given that the creative industries were growing at two and a half times the rate of the rest of the economy in the run-up to Covid, it could even be argued that this is a surprisingly low rate of growth in this area of HE provision.

However, we are seeing a number of government levers being simultaneously pulled, effectively discouraging young people from studying non-STEM subjects in the social sciences and the arts and humanities. In my view, this approach is fundamentally mistaken. It will be highly detrimental to international perceptions of the English higher education system if we continue to reduce the subject range of our universities and the supply of high-quality provision across all disciplines and institutional types. The strength in breadth of our higher education system is one of its great features, and it is a big part of what makes it internationally attractive.

So I wonder if the Minister would agree that we need not only a proper economic impact analysis of the ELQ restriction but a serious and holistic evaluation of the economic costs and benefits of creative arts education before we wave through the LLE. If the Treasury really wants to save big money, the Government should abandon any plans that they might have to restrict student choice in this way and instead focus on fixing some of the needlessly costly features of the student loan that my noble friend Lord Willetts mentioned earlier—for example, reducing the student loan repayment threshold could save billions and significantly reduce the proportion of the student loan book that ends up being subsidised by the taxpayer. This would be a far better way of putting the student finance system on a sustainable footing than constraining student choice, stifling education for the creative industries and choking off the supply of talent to socially valuable but lower-earning professions.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 3:30 pm, 21st July 2021

My Lords, of the two speeches that we have had so far, the noble Baroness’s introduction of the amendments seemed reasonable and necessary. Then we heard the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson. When someone who has been involved in the system as recently as the noble Lord says that you have got something wrong, I would listen hard and long—so I hope that, when the noble Baroness responds to that, she will give the impression that that is happening, because the creative arts and the creative sector pay for themselves. Many of my noble friends have spent a great deal of time on this, not usually with the noble Baroness but with others—the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, can probably show you the scars of dealing with that. This must be looked at because the creative sector is a growing part of our economy, and the ways in are not usually through formal qualification.

The amendments in this group with my name—Amendments 99 and 99B—go back to the familiar territory of special educational needs. Amendment 99 basically tries to say that higher education has a series of support structures involved for those with special educational needs who are going through it. The noble Baroness, Lady Penn, referred to one of my slight irritants on this subject—that we are dealing with higher needs, but most people with special educational needs do not have higher needs but just have slight difficulties in certain sectors.

In the higher education sector, one of the most useful things is information capture, for instance—namely, taping or recording lectures and tutorials and playing them back in certain formats, meaning that the person can digest it in other ways, such as in a written format that you do not have to take notes on, which is the great killer for dyslexics. Several pages of hieroglyphics are of no use to man nor beast, and, trust me, when you wrote them you did not really listen to what was going on anyway. That sort of device going through would be very helpful. I am trying to make sure that all these types of provision for lower needs will be accessible by anyone who is going through this lifelong learning process.

I was thinking in particular about levels 4 and 5, because here a person will be working independently for some of the time or, if they are taking lectures, et cetera, will need some support. The support is available in higher education, and higher education goes on within colleges of further education, does it not? It does if you look at their syllabuses. Will we make sure that this facility is there, is used and supports these candidates? If it does, we are doing a good thing with something that is already in place; we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We can go back and make sure we are getting the best out of what is in an existing system and transfer it across.

The same is true, as the right reverend Prelate who is speaking after me will confirm—I may be putting words in his mouth but I will take a chance on it—when we come to further education, where we have a different regime again. To the age of 25, support is more tied in with the education, health and care plan—but they are different regimes working across each other. Are we going to take the best of both and bring them together in one place to make sure people are supported, or are we going to let them compete with one another and decide where we come in? This is something of an absurdity that makes sense only if we assume that further education and higher education do not cross. I would have thought some of the subtext behind much of what we have heard here challenges that. Also, good practice in one area of learning will be good practice in another.

I just hope the Minister will be able, when she replies, to tell me that the Bill will bring a bit more coherence to these plans and support. Look for good practice and make it appropriate to the student, not to whether it is an F or an E—or an F or an H, or whatever the thing is. Is that a dyslexic mistake? Probably. Anyway, as we go through this, whether it is further or higher education we are dealing with should not really matter; it is merely what helps that candidate get through. I think I will get told off for using that expression. If the Minister can give me that assurance, I will be a little happier at the end of this. Making sure there is a coherent strategy that refers to good practice would make many people a little more comfortable about the direction of travel here.

We do not want to keep going back to this. If we can take what works in one sector and apply it to another, it would seem logical and sensible. This may be a challenge that is beyond any one Minister or Government—but strike a blow and we will all remember you fondly, no matter what happens.

Photo of Lord Flight Lord Flight Conservative

My Lords, this debate has, I believe, produced extremely valuable advice for government in sorting out our higher education and apprenticeship problems, and I give great praise to what I have heard today.

My amendment requires the Secretary of State to amend the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 to ensure that those claiming the lifelong learning entitlement qualify as eligible students for support under those regulations. There is a similar amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on student maintenance, which I understand may have cross-party support. My proposals would create a maintenance support system that enables everyone to live reasonably while studying or training at colleges of both FE and HE. One might ask why student maintenance is needed when the Government’s ambition is to make education and training available to people throughout their life. It is welcome and needed as jobs change and are displaced and are likely to change even faster. The lifelong loan entitlement announced in September 2020 could open up tuition fee loans for people taking level 4 to 5 qualifications, which are especially important for unlocking higher technical skills for the sector.

Clauses 14 and 15 create powers to put this into effect, but they cover only tuition fees and higher-level courses—level 4 and above. This is packaged with an all-age level 3 entitlement in the lifetime skills guarantee. Many adults will be unable to take up those opportunities because there is no support for living costs when they are taking courses at this or higher levels. These people would be prevented from transforming their life chances and becoming part of the skilled workforce that employers and the economy need so much.

How to change? To address these issues, the Government should extend the system of loans and means-tested grants to support adults to be able to live while in relevant education and training. This could be restricted to be available only for the loan entitlement and lifetime skills guarantee. Work would have to be undertaken to align a system of grants and loans with the benefits system so that everyone can access the support and funding they need. The amendment would oblige the Secretary of State to amend the 2011 education regulations to ensure that those claiming the lifelong learning entitlement qualify as eligible students for support under the regulations.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 3:45 pm, 21st July 2021

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds observed at Second Reading, colleges play a vital role in providing for students with specific learning difficulties and disabilities—the term widely used in further education as being broader than the “special educational needs” used elsewhere. This amendment seeks to address the discrepancy between the range and funding available to younger students with specific learning difficulties or disabilities, principally those in school settings or specialist institutions, and those applicable to students in FE. It seeks also to harmonise best practice across the FE and HE sectors, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, outlined a few moments ago. It connects with the earlier Amendments 41 and 43 to 46, especially the requirement to review how well the education and training provided by an institution meet the needs of those with special educational needs in its area, and with Amendment 99, which places a specific duty on the Secretary of State to this end.

According to the Association of Colleges, students with SLDD make up 17% of the overall intake—a figure that rises to 23% of 16 to 18 year-old learners. In 2019-20, local authorities placed more than 64,000 students with education, health and care plans in colleges, 90% of them in general FE colleges and the rest in special institutions. However, the current funding regime does not provide support for those students in FE who do not have EHCPs to anything like the degree required. Yet the Bill makes no specific reference to such students, nor to those with other specific learning needs or disabilities—something to which the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Lingfield, have drawn particular attention during earlier debates and, indeed, on many other occasions in this House.

I know from discussion with the Minister that this is an issue the Government are fully aware of and are eager to address. The Green Paper promised for the summer will, we hope, set out in more detail and in more concrete terms how a much higher degree of priority could be given to this diverse cohort of learners in both policy and funding terms, and how that might best be reflected, if not in the Bill then as government policy develops. It would be most useful if the Minister were able to indicate how she sees progress with the Green Paper and some definite assurance of the Government’s commitment to greater equity or parity in the treatment of older students with SEN in our colleges. I would also welcome a further opportunity for discussion with her, which might also advantageously include other Members of this House with a particular concern for such an important area of post-16 provision.

Photo of Lord Brougham and Vaux Lord Brougham and Vaux Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench

My Lords, this broad group covers many of the crucial features of the lifelong learning entitlement. I will confine my remarks to Amendments 92 and 95, covering the availability of the entitlement and learners’ eligibility for it. The lifelong loan entitlement and the lifetime skills guarantee are absolutely at the heart of this Bill and the framework it seeks to create. To achieve the more highly skilled, productive and ambitious nation that we seek, people—not just some people, but all people—need to know that there are great opportunities available to them, whether they desire new skills, higher skills or refreshed skills, and they need to know how to find out how to pursue them. That is where careers information and guidance come in and why they need to be properly covered in the Bill.

People also need to know that the training and educational routes to acquiring the skills to grasp those opportunities are realistically open to them, without undue or unreasonable restrictions or conditions. That is what will generate the enthusiasm and the actual take-up, so that the skills policy and the ambitions behind the Bill achieve the outcomes they deserve. Both the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, have mentioned incentivising learners to encourage them to take part, which may not need to be in the Bill itself but needs to be a central part of the strategy.

If I have always nursed the desire to retrain as a bookbinder—or perhaps as a graphic designer, as in the example of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, also a classicist—but I find that loans are available only for specific skills not including bookbinding, or that they do not apply to my age group, or do not include any allowance for living expenses I might need, or are not available to me because I already have an equivalent-level qualification, or are ruled out for other reasons, I may well decide to drop the whole idea as an unrealisable or impractical aspiration. If I get the impression from the outset that there are likely to be such barriers or limitations to accessing the entitlement, I will probably not pursue it at all. But if the lifelong loan entitlement actually means what it says, it could unleash a wave of energy and creativity, as people embrace it to expand their skills and pursue their goals—and indeed their dreams. The suggestion of noble Lord, Lord Johnson, of a proper economic assessment, with that in mind, of the ELQ requirement and the limitations on creative and arts funding, would be very welcome.

The lifelong loan entitlement and the lifetime skills guarantee—LLE and LSG—should be the twin banners for a skills revolution, or a skills crusade, not just sets of rules, regulations and legislation setting limits on training availability. So I enthusiastically endorse Amendment 92 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the somewhat similar Amendment 95 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and, again, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, in their aims to establish a truly all-embracing and inspiring entitlement with a minimum of limitations, driven, above all, by learner aspiration, enthusiasm and desire. The LLE and the LSG together offer a real chance to make education and skills exciting and exhilarating, as they should be. I hope the Government will take that chance, even if not by accepting these amendments.

I wish the Government every success in making progress with this important Bill and with the strategy underlying it. Since this will be my last contribution in Committee, I would like to commend both Ministers—the noble Baronesses, Lady Berridge and Lady Penn—on their contribution to this Committee. I wish them an enjoyable and, I hope, restful—though possibly not, in the case of the noble Baroness, Lady Penn—and very happy recess before we get to grips with the Bill again.

Photo of Baroness Sherlock Baroness Sherlock Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, we have had some really interesting speeches in this group already, but I am afraid that this is the end of that trend. I am merely going to talk about the government amendments, and my noble friend Lord Watson will cover the interesting bits at the end.

They government amendments represent some of the wiring in the basement of higher education that are going to be needed when the Government unveil their renovation plans in the form of the detail of the lifelong loan entitlement. The Minister moved the government amendments in just over two minutes. I want to unpack them a little, so we can understand their potential implications. I confess I may have a suspicious nature, although I am encouraged, having heard the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, that I am not alone in that.

Currently, the different bits of legislation that frame the regulation and funding of higher education are predicated on the unit of education being a course made up of academic years. The Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998THEA—governs which HE courses attract funding via the student loan system, by referring to the Education Reform Act 1988, while HERA governs which bits of HE are regulated by the Office for Students and are subject to fee limits and more besides. But of course the lifelong loan entitlement is intended to cover not just university degree courses but courses and modules in further and higher education. To make that possible, Clauses 14 amends the regulation-making powers in THEA to allow for the funding of courses in FE and modules in FE and HE, to set a lifetime funding limit, and to allow for funding based not only on the academic year.

The Minister explained that Clause 15 amends the definition of a higher education course in HERA to make it clear that the regulatory regime applies to modules of courses. The way it does that is to say that an HE course is either a course mentioned in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988 or a module of such a course, whether or not undertaken as part of such a course. So a course is either a course or a part of a course—I confess I wrestled for a bit with whether a thing could be itself or part of itself. But then government Amendment 91C now distinguishes between a full course and a module for the purposes of HERA. A full course means a higher education course that is not a module of another higher education course. A module is a module of a full course, but which is undertaken otherwise than as part of those courses.

I know, on the face of it, that that sounds like a circular definition, but I have decided the only way I can understand it is as a set of Russian dolls: a smaller Russian doll counts as a module if she fits inside a bigger one and is a part of that set; an identical Russian doll that is not part of a set at all would not be a module; and a full course is the biggest Russian doll which does not fit inside any other Russian doll. I am grateful to the Minister for giving me access to some very clever and kind officials to help me try to understand this regulation—although I should say that their language was rather more precise, and there was no mention of dolls. I hope she can tell me whether I have got that right.

Why does it matter? I think that is up to the Minister to tell us. On access to student finance, can the Minister confirm whether this means that a module can be funded only via the student loan book if it is part of a full HE course? Is it right that the student does not have to be registered for that course, or indeed any course, while taking the module? Could I, say, draw on my lifelong loan entitlement to take the “Introduction to Christian ethics” module, which is part of a theology degree at Winchester university, without being registered for that degree, or indeed any degree? If so, that raises another question. Modular degrees generally have a limited number of pathways that can be taken through them to reach a qualification, in order to ensure there is a coherence to a degree and that certain essentials are covered. Could a student take a series of modules, each of which is part of a full course but which taken together will never add up to a full course, and therefore could never lead to a qualification?

Do the Government intend to prescribe the size or shape of a module further, either for funding or regulatory purposes? There are lots of modules around: short, intensive modules and long, less intensive modules; modules worth 10 credits and others worth 15 or 20; and modules at level 4, level 5 and level 6. Clause 14 provides that two or more modules can count as a single module—for the purposes, I presume, of student finance. Is that a hint that the Government may want to set a minimum credit value that will be eligible for support under the loan? If the centre gets too stuck into defining what a module is, does it not risk both the autonomy and, crucially, the flexibility of providers—maybe even getting in the way of the innovation the Government say they want?

There are so many more questions that need answering, about choice, compatibility, comparability, funding and lots more. I suspect the Minister will say we need to wait until she brings forward more amendments on Report, but there is one matter she needs to address today: the changes these amendments would make to the powers of the Office for Students. By switching the unit of HE from just a course to either a full course or a module, these amendments would empower Ministers at a later date to allow funding for modules. But it seems to me that they immediately allow the Office for Students to regulate at the level of a module as well as a course. Amendment 91B does place some limits on that by saying, for example, that the OfS cannot request information on modules more often than courses. It also means that the OfS is not obliged to publish information on fee limits for modules, as it is for courses.

But can the Minister tell the Committee if the effect of these amendments is that the unit of higher education can be a module for the purposes of regulation? What will that mean for the way the OfS regulates quality in higher education? Currently its key metrics are student continuation rates, completion rates and progression to managerial and professional jobs. How does that work for modules? If a student takes modules at several different providers, who is responsible for her outcome? Is it the last one she happened to stop at?

The more I learn about what is in the Bill, the more I realise that there is a hole at the heart of it and that most of the action is happening offstage, beyond this House. The Government want to transform post-18 education and want us to pass a Bill which will give powers to the Secretary of State and the OfS to make changes, but we do not know what those changes will be. The OfS is in the middle of a two-year consultation process. Phase 2 was out only this week and phase 3 is some way off—and that is before we have a spending review, the response to Augar and much more.

How and when will Parliament get to scrutinise all these moving parts of the Government’s plan for higher education? The limited scrutiny offered of spending decisions or pieces of secondary legislation taken piecemeal is no substitute for the ability of this House to train its laser gaze on legislation in the Committee stage of a Bill. I hope that the Minister can give us some answers today and that, by the time we get to Report, we will have more information still.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 4:00 pm, 21st July 2021

My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and to express my awe at the—to use her phrase—“laser gaze” she applied to the government amendments, which I will not attempt to emulate.

I will focus on the amendments in this group that are not government amendments. For convenience, I will go through them in numerical order, beginning with Amendment 92 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson of Marylebone, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, which—as the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, noted—has some similarities to Amendment 95, which appears in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and myself. Somewhat to my surprise, I again find myself agreeing with a very large amount of what the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, said, particularly the reflection that earnings data cannot be the be-all and end-all of judging the value of qualifications, and his points on the value of creative subjects, reflecting what many other noble Lords have said in this debate. However, I strongly disagree with his suggestion that lowering the earnings threshold for student loan repayment starting is some kind of solution to the current mess the Government are in. The fact is that we have generations—particularly but not solely—of young people finding it extremely hard to find a secure economic place in the world, and making them more insecure, creating more difficulties and putting further economic pressure on them, very often through those three decades of life when they would normally expect to perhaps settle down, have children or even buy a house, would have widespread effects reaching far beyond the educational impacts.

I move now to Amendments 94 and 95 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and myself. It is a pity that he has not yet introduced these, but their meaning and intention is fairly clear. We are aiming here to introduce more flexibility and to acknowledge, as I said on an earlier group, that we are not in the 20th century, where people’s lives started by perhaps doing a course of study or an apprenticeship, working for 30 or 40 years and then collecting their gold carriage clock at the end of it. That is not how the world works; people move in many different directions. I have to say, I was rather attracted by the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, of taking up bookbinding; that sounds a rather attractive option. But people move in all kinds of different directions in all kinds of ways, and the idea that they could have some linear, progressive, straight-line course currently mars the Bill, and these amendments seek to acknowledge this. I look at Amendment 94 in particular: life happens. A third to a half of pregnancies in the UK are unplanned; people never know what life will throw at them, and they need flexibility to have the lifelong learning entitlement to work for whatever life throws at them. That perhaps applies even more to Amendment 96. We talked earlier about the possibility of people being able to receive universal credit while studying along their life course, and this is an alternative way of approaching the problem by allowing for maintenance grants—indeed, those two things might well go together, given the nature and cost of living these days.

Coming to Amendment 97, I feel I am picking up a subject on which many other noble Lords are vastly more qualified and have been working on for a long time, but we really have to highlight the utter government failure that this proposed new clause reflects on and, indeed, seeks to ensure is not extended. It is acknowledged that 9% of the student population currently are Muslim—I think that is a higher education figure rather than a further education one—but it should be higher. In 2013, David Cameron promised to provide an alternative student finance option to comply with sharia law, which prohibits riba, or interest. The following year there was a consultation to provide a takaful system that would fit within the existing structures. In 2017, the Higher Education and Research Act was granted Royal Assent and gave the Government the power to introduce such a system—yet we are still waiting. I would very much value any news the Minister might be able to give us on progress in this area. Covid really is no excuse; this has been going on and continuing and was an area of failure far before Covid. I note that in the other place there is an Early Day Motion calling for the introduction of this form of finance for students, which is receiving wide support.

Finally, on Amendment 99—and, indeed, Amendment 99B—I do not feel that I can add anything to what the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who is so extremely knowledgeable in this area, said, except to offer support.

This is my last contribution in this Committee. I join many others in offering the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, the very best wishes for the coming month or two in particular. I thank everyone who has contributed to this Committee. We have been a rather small and select band, which seems to be the case with many of the Bills before your Lordships’ House. I hope that we might see a broader level of engagement when we get to Report, but, in the meantime, I thank noble Lords.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, this has been a lively debate. To echo some of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, I say that this is welcome, because there has been much less engagement than some of us had anticipated with the Bill in Committee. I hope that some of that will be put right on Report.

In this group of amendments, there is a huge opportunity, if the lifelong loan entitlement is designed well, for it to support opportunity around the country by revitalising flexible higher education and reversing the catastrophic decline in the number of adults in England aged 21 and over accessing undergraduate higher education. Yet, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock set out in detail, we still know far too little about the specific design features of the lifelong loan entitlement and how it will work in practice. Like much of this Bill, although urgently needed, the legislation has been laid before the policy detail has been proposed and consulted on.

It is disappointing to say the least that the Government tabled their amendments just a week ago and that further amendments on Report are necessary. I think it is fair to say that the coruscating criticism a few minutes ago by my noble friend Lady Sherlock brilliantly illustrated why we expect the Minister to withdraw and not move the amendments to allow the House time for the proposals to be fleshed out, so that noble Lords can give them the critical analysis necessary to enable the successful implementation that, in fairness, we all want.

We have said before that we believe that 2025 is too long to wait and that the lifelong loan entitlement system, or interim arrangements, must be put in place sooner. Can the Minister clarify whether all adults will be able to access support through the lifelong loan entitlement from its introduction, whenever it does appear, or whether it will be introduced gradually for different age cohorts?

The government amendments tabled on the entitlement provide the building blocks of a modular and potentially credit-based loan funding and fee limit system. We welcome the flexibility for the entitlement to incorporate modular funding and recognise that this presents both opportunities and, given the complexity, significant challenges. We know that details on the funding of courses will need to await the comprehensive spending review in the autumn, but can the Minister confirm whether there will be a fee limit for modules? Will this be proportionate to their credits towards a qualification? In the current arrangements, not all credits attract the same fees; short courses are generally more expensive per credit than full degree courses. The Government’s approach to this will be telling because it matters to potential students who would need to access loans in order to study.

Our Amendment 95 is similar to Amendment 92 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, which we support. I have to say, I much enjoyed his contribution, even if it is slightly odd to be on the same side as him, given our jousting on what became the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017. It is odd but none the less welcome.

Our Amendment 95 would remove the equivalent or lower qualification exemption rules for the lifelong loan entitlement to ensure eligibility for student loan funding for another qualification at that level or a lower level to make career changes as simple as possible. It would also ensure that eligibility is not restricted in any way that would prevent those seeking to use the entitlement in a manner that fits their lifestyle. Many people will have chosen at 18 a degree that has taken them down a different career path to that intended when they studied. It may be that their industry or sector has since contracted or disappeared completely, and the need to reskill becomes even more apparent.

This is why my Amendment 85 would remove the ELQ exemption rule for the lifelong loan entitlement. The equivalent or lower qualification rules prevent someone with a degree or a lower qualification, such as an HND, receiving a student loan for another qualification at that level or lower. We believe that this is a mistake because some in that position will already be in work and seeking to change career. In a loan system, the equivalent or lower qualification rules should be removed to prevent this block on changing careers. It provides a disincentive to do so.

Amendment 95 also aims to ensure that anyone wanting to undertake modular study can do so in all subject areas and that, when doing so, they are able to access the same support for fees and living costs regardless of how they choose to study, including through modules or full qualifications, part-time or full-time, face to face or at a distance.

The lifelong loan entitlement offers up to four years’ equivalent funding for levels 4 to 6. While this may be enough for some people, for others, it simply will not be. Undertaking a foundation or access year plus a three-year bachelor’s degree, which is a pretty common route, would swallow it in one go. This is why Amendment 94 would require the Secretary of State to consult on extending the eligibility to six years to give a bit more flexibility. As I said, for some, four years is not long enough. This will be of particular value to those studying part-time and key to the success of encouraging adult learners to take up an offer to study and reskill.

The Government’s stated aim is to encourage as many people as possible to prepare for the skills demanded by an ever-changing economy. Amendment 94 supports that aim.

It is also worth emphasising that the vast majority of part-time students in England are ineligible for maintenance loans, which are currently restricted to full-time students and part-time students on degree courses at face-to-face providers. This illustrates why the lifelong loan entitlement needs to support all modes of study. In fact, this is highlighted on page 42 of the Department for Education’s own impact assessment, as the noble Lord, Lord Flight, pointed out. The cost of study, including living costs, is very important yet, as drafted, the entitlement covers tuition costs only. Why have the Government ignored their own impact assessment in this regard? They must introduce a system of loans and means-tested grants that enables everyone to live well while studying or training at college across both the further education and higher education sectors.

Maintenance support will be crucial in preventing further hurdles being placed in the path of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds taking up studies. Otherwise, many adults will be unable to take up these opportunities, frustrating their aim—and that of the Government—of transforming their life chances and being part of the skilled workforce that employers and the economy need. Many will have existing debts and financial commitments, as well as caring needs for children or elderly relatives. If lifelong learning is to succeed, the system simply must recognise these differences and provide solutions.

I also hope that the Minister can assure noble Lords that bursaries and grants at a meaningful level will be made available, on the understanding that adult learners applying for level 4 or level 5 qualifications may well have a different attitude to taking on a loan compared to typical, younger, university students. The Welsh Government recently introduced reforms to tackle this issue by extending maintenance support, including means-tested grants, to all students regardless of mode of study while maintaining low tuition fees for part-time study. This has had a huge impact on participation in Wales. Are the Government willing to learn from that good example or is it their aim to try to introduce the lifelong loan entitlement on the cheap? If so, that would be a false economy on more than one level; I really do hope that the Minister can assure noble Lords that that is not the case.

Finally, Amendment 97 would allow the Secretary of State to make provision for sharia-compliant lifelong loan entitlement loans. As is quite widely known, some people of faith, including Muslims, do not feel able to take on interest-bearing loans; this was identified by the Government as a barrier to participation in a consultation published as long ago as 2016. This is an issue that noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, will recall because it became an intractable problem during the passage of what became the Higher Education and Research Act four years ago. For reasons I confess to being less than clear about, and despite considerable effort on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, there has been little progress since then on a sharia-compliant loans system to ensure that nobody is denied access as a result of their religious faith. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the lifelong loan entitlement will address the needs of such students, because it is essential that the entitlement does not erect further barriers to participation and upskilling.

We signify our support for the amendments from Amendment 99 onwards, including those in the Minister’s name.

It is regrettable that it should be necessary to restate the need for special educational needs, but it is. Once again, it has been done most effectively by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. There is very poor alignment between the DWP and DfE strategies on supporting SEND students. In particular, at present, adults in receipt of disability benefits can lose out on benefit entitlements if they engage in education and training, as my noble friend Lady Sherlock highlighted during the debates on previous groups. I hope that the Minister can give noble Lords confidence that the upcoming SEND Green Paper will actively align to the skills reform agenda and describe the strategic oversight needed to support this. This really is an overdue development that cannot be body-swerved by the Government any longer.

There are still many questions for the Government to answer. The policy paper that the Minister circulated to the noble Lords who participated in yesterday’s debate was helpful but, none the less, those questions remain outstanding. I look forward to hearing her response.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 4:15 pm, 21st July 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords. I am feeling sympathy for my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott as I will deal first with the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, on the Government’s amendments.

First, we need the flexibility outlined by the noble Baroness in relation to modules to ensure one of the purposes, which is that a module can be transferred from institution to institution. The noble Baroness used the analogy of Russian dolls; I tend to use the analogy of carriages on a train. A course may be three carriages, but you can pick up one of those carriages and do that course as a module. Obviously, we need to define what a module is; that will be part of the consultation. A fee cap will also attach to that module, to answer the noble Baroness’s question, and you can do that carriage without signing up to do all three carriages at the same time.

The consultation will inform the questions she asked about whether or how you prevent people doing carriage number one of the six different trains. The consultation will inform the decisions that need to be made and, as noble Lords are aware, there will be amendments on Report, which will further amend HERA to attach a fee cap limit to that module, as it is currently attached to an academic year.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised questions on the regulatory regime of the Office for Students. We will be working closely with the Office for Students on the interconnection with the student outcomes quality framework of starts, continuity and completion and how that will work when we have modular provision. We are aware of the two cogs that will need to work closely together, but there will still be year-long funding. The HE finance system that at the moment funds straightforward three-year degrees will need to be changed. The Office for Students takes a risk-based approach to its regulatory activity. We are going to work with it to make sure that the expectations on providers are clear. It already regulates the fee limit condition and is required to do so in a proportionate way.

On comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and other noble Lords, I have specifically been asking questions of officials, because I did not have the pleasure of working on HERA or any of the other legislation, and I respect that noble Lords are often experts on the legislative process and bring their scrutiny to bear. But I believe we are legislating in a similar way to how we did with HERA, in that much of the primary legislation is a framework that gives broad powers to the Secretary of State, and then there are approximately 300 pages of statutory instruments on higher education finance, at the moment, which your Lordships’ House will have the opportunity to scrutinise. I sometimes feel a little constrained, because there is a limit to what can be in primary legislation.

In relation to noble Lords’ amendments, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that of course we are listening, and assure my noble friend Lord Johnson that I will make sure that the Treasury has listened to many of his comments, which I think is where he addressed them.

On the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Johnson and the noble Lord, Lord Watson, as I mentioned, we intend to consult on the detail and scope of the LLE, including on aspects such as eligibility—I was asked whether we would get it all at once or whether there would be a transition, and that will be in the consultation—and whether restrictions on previous study should be amended to facilitate retraining and stimulate high-quality provision. The final policy design will be informed by consultation and engagement, which is a crucial aspect of ensuring that the transformation of the student finance system is done in a way that takes into account the needs of providers, learners and stakeholders and, as my noble friend Lord Johnson said, enables that process of learning over a lifetime.

As such, it is very important that this legislation does not pre-empt or prescribe any further decisions based on its outcome. Introducing the proposed changes in primary legislation is likely to prejudice the consultation, which is important to ensure that we listen to providers and all affected by it. I also highlight the purpose of the existing equivalent or lower qualification and previous study rules. We are building the LLE on to a system designed to support students pursuing either further or higher education but, at the same time, to share the cost to the taxpayer fairly. We want to ensure that the lifetime loan entitlement provides value for money to students.

Furthermore, regarding the aspects in the amendment on the mode of study, institution of study and both modular and full course pathways, I confirm that the LLE is intended to support greater flexibility in all those areas. As I set out initially, it will be available for modules at levels 4 to 6, regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. Although I respect that my noble friend Lord Johnson is probing and obviously making comments to the Treasury in his amendment, I cannot help but ask what the effect would be of having these amendments in the Bill. At the moment, if the ELQ is prohibited in the manner proposed by the amendment, we would not, in consultation or further regulations, be able to stop somebody doing the same level 4 course four times, for instance. We do not want to rule out the option of having statutory instruments that allow us to do that.

My noble friend asked questions about the creative industries, of which he is a great advocate. All these flexibilities are aimed at opening up opportunities in growing sectors of the economy. We have talked about LSIPs and the Skills and Productivity Board, but I think I am correct in noting that his examples were related to HE creative industry courses. Our hope and expectation are that this will open up many courses in these sectors within FE, as well as HE, institutions.

We are Chancellor in agreement with Amendments 99 and 99B, from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. We recognise that many or a disproportionate number of those students are within the FE sector. We want this to be flexible and expect that students who might particularly benefit are those with special educational needs and disabilities, or SLDD, as it was more accurately put by the right reverend Prelate.

I reassure noble Lords that our commitment to supporting FE students through the LLE is a key consideration, but we have yet to determine what form that support will take. I confirm to the right reverend Prelate that the SEND review includes further education; and to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who has raised this away from the Chamber—that there are certain grants for SEND students in HE at the moment. What happens to those in relation to the LLE is also part of the consultation. I hope that noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Addington, will tell us what they believe to be the best of both worlds, both in your Lordships’ House and through the consultation—and of course I would be delighted to meet with him and the right reverend Prelate on the issue of special educational needs and disabilities.

On Amendment 94, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, our vision is for a four-year entitlement, as recommended in Augar. Beyond the significant and obvious potential for additional costs, I also highlight to noble Lords that six years of entitlement would enable students to complete one degree, then turn straight around and do another undergraduate three-year degree. As such, a six-year entitlement might inadvertently further embed full-time study for level 6 degrees as the default option, when it is not necessarily best for some students. We are trying to open up the provision to be more flexible.

It is worth noting that the current HE system, as my noble friend Lord Johnson outlined, funds courses that are part-time, with a minimum intensity of 25%. That part-time study may take place over several calendar years. Under the LLE, we would not wish to remove this flexibility. As such, part-time study would also be able to exceed four calendar years.

Amendments 96 and 99A on maintenance were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and my noble friend Lord Flight respectively. We agree wholeheartedly with the importance of ensuring that students are supported to succeed in their studies. It is part of our ambition to help students have the opportunity to choose the best course or modules to suit their needs, rather than the most advantageous funding system. The Bill already provides the necessary powers for maintenance support to be introduced as part of the LLE, if the decision is taken that it should be, following the consultation I have outlined. The consultation will inform the way maintenance loans and other forms of living costs support—which the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, was right to highlight—can be made available to students.

Amendment 97 is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and was supported in her speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss sharia-compliant student finance. Clause 14 already encompasses the possibility of sharia-compliant student finance under the LLE. This is encompassed by the term “alternative payments”, taken from the Secretary of State’s existing powers to make regulations introduced by Section 86 of HERA. As such, Amendment 97 would not give the Secretary of State any additional powers. Alongside our other priorities, we are carefully considering an alternative student finance product, compatible with Islamic finance principles, and have decided to align a decision on implementation with the outcome of the post-18 review of education and funding. We will provide an update on ASF when we conclude that review.

The Bill makes explicit provision for the funding of modules of courses, as well explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, and will help create a more flexible system across both higher and further education. However, it does not set out changes to the rules of eligibility, maintenance support or other points of detail, which I argue are more appropriately a matter for regulations. As I have said, much more work is going to be done through the consultation. I will happily report back to noble Lords once the consultation is launched, and again once it has concluded and we have formulated our response.

In recognition of your Lordships’ contributions during this debate, and particularly the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, I beg leave to withdraw the amendments in my name. We will review and table them again on Report, alongside the other amendments we are already planning to table. I hope noble Lords will feel comfortable not moving their amendments when they are called.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:30 pm, 21st July 2021

The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, has a question that he would like to put to the Minister.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am perplexed because, in her response, the Minister said that she expected the announcement made yesterday by the Office for Students on funding for the arts and creative subjects would open up many more such courses. The report that I have received is that high-cost subsidy funding is to be cut by half, with effect from September this year. How on earth could that open up more courses? Universities are saying that they may even have to close down courses. Defunding cannot produce more courses, or have I misunderstood the noble Baroness?

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

To clarify, the point that I was raising was in relation to FE courses. My noble friend Lord Johnson referred to existing courses in HE in terms of the creative industries. What we are hoping is, through this measure, to see a parity of esteem with FE. Obviously, FE delivers an enormous number of courses at the moment, but we would see an expansion of that provision in that sector as well. I just wanted to highlight that FE is also a main player in that sector. I was not referencing yesterday’s announcement. I am sorry for any confusion.

Amendment 91A withdrawn.

Amendments 91B and 91C not moved.

Clause 15 agreed.

Amendments 92 to 99B not moved.

Clause 26: Extent

Amendments 99C and 99D not moved.

Clause 26 agreed.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group consisting of Amendment 100. Anyone wishing to press this amendment to a Division must make that clear in debate.

Clause 27: Commencement