Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:25 am on 21st March 2023.
We will now hear oral evidence from Julie Charge, chief executive and director of finance at the University of Salford, and Professor Edward Peck, vice-chancellor and president of Nottingham Trent University. The witnesses are appearing by Zoom, but Sir Edward Peck is not yet with us, so please bear with us and we will interrupt proceedings as we did previously. We have until five to 11 for this panel. Could you please introduce yourself for the record, Julie?
Good morning everyone. My name is Julie Charge. I am the director of finance and the deputy chief director for the University of Salford.
Q Good morning. Do you expect students to respond favourably to the new system of limits per credit, instead of limits per year?
The terminology of credit is something that is familiar to students in terms of understanding credits, but there is probably more work that we would need to do to link credits to what they might see as an overall course. Generally, when students are thinking about their degree, they are thinking about a period of time and the content of it, and not necessarily the link between the work effort and the credits themselves.
Q What work needs to be done, apart from careers guidance, to get students more familiar with the new system and the fact that they can do modules or short courses as well as long courses?
It is the connectivity. Students will be familiar with modules as part of something that, when they are applying, they see described to them in a range of different ways. There is therefore some work that we as a university would need to do to make it easy for them to understand the relationship between the module of the course that they want to participate in and the credits.
I think there is another aspect here, which is that, again, as a university, we link hours to credits. If we can link all those things in a way that gives much more clarity for a student, by saying, “This is the undertaking in hours, which equates to number of credits, which is therefore part of a module, and the module then builds up your course,” that clarity will help with that sort of common understanding.
Q Do you anticipate that this will mainly be utilised by learners who are in work currently and are looking to develop their careers, whose employers are looking to develop their skills, or by learners who are either out of work or looking to change jobs or employers?
Probably a combination of both. We did the pilot on short courses. It was a very small sample size in terms of the take-up, but 40% of the applicants and those who went on to do the short course were in the 26 to 30 age group—and it was a combination of retraining after some initial work or an initial degree, and some initial training. Then we saw a different group: the other big group, who were retraining and upskilling, was aged 36 to 40. Of that group, some were continuing their studies, but the majority were external and returning to do that training. I cannot comment on whether there was unemployment, but there were certainly two big groups, in terms of age profile, that were returning to do the pilot course with us.
Q At that stage of their careers, the prospect of taking on debt did not dissuade them?
Q Do you have any concerns about the delivery of this approach or how it would operate for learners who are transferring from one institution to another? Do you think that there is enough clarity on those aspects?
I think there is some way to go to understand how that transfer will work in practice. Having a commonality of modules and credits per module helps with that level of understanding, but in terms of the qualifications that go alongside that and the end result, that is unclear at this stage. Further work would be needed to work out things like who the awarding power would be for a course set up in such a way.
There are also some other points regarding the outcome of the course. I will just reflect on what we have at the moment with a three-year course. As you work through your levels—through levels 4, 5 and 6—the complexity obviously builds, in terms of your learning and understanding. Therefore, when we work through this, we would need to be assured of the level of work and the level of learning that is occurring through those years, in order to be assured that at the end the student can be awarded at the right level, and we can maintain that quality.
Q Finally, there is currently no involvement of the apprenticeship levy in the design of this system. What role would you expect existing initiatives, like the apprenticeship levy, bootcamps and others, to have in interacting with this kind of approach?
This could absolutely play into an apprenticeship arrangement. Again, if we as an institution can think a bit more creatively about how we could do that, it would align quite nicely with the degree apprenticeships that already exist. It would need a bit of work, but that could sit alongside. Again, it is really important to reflect on trying to make it as easy as possible for students to understand their options and the outcomes—what this leads to for them; it will be important to join some of the dots, with a wide range of skills routes they can take. This is about making it easy, having clarity, and students understanding their outcomes.
I want to dig a bit deeper into the workforce issues. Having worked in further education for many years, I am very aware of the problem that the FE sector is having with recruitment and retention now. Much of that is because of the pay differential between, for instance, school teachers and FE lecturers—as well as, obviously, higher education lecturers. A previous witness said that an injection of cash would be very welcome. Can this be successful if there is not an injection of cashQ ?
If I go back to the experience that we had of trialling the short courses, it is possible to set this up. The administration is slightly more complex. It does not sit comfortably within an individual module or modules, because that is not how universities work. We have a three-year degree; a number of costs are included to support students during that period, and some modules are more expensive than others. There is some work here.
One of the learnings was not so much about the marketing, but about the understanding of what was available and ensuring there was enough knowledge in the marketplace for people to understand what they were coming into. In terms of cost, it is possible to do that, but there is something about the messaging of what is on offer, and making that clear for prospective students.
Q What impact might these changes have on the workforce and your industrial relations?
Again, speaking for my institution, we do an awful lot of work with industry, so we are very linked to industry. Going back to the trial, this was very welcomed among employers—that constant reskilling. That is particularly because a lot of the jobs that we are training and upskilling our students for do not exist yet. We are trying to give them the skills for those future jobs. Therefore, it is really important to have those skills going across industry, and to provide that constant ability to learn—be that through credit bearing or non-credit bearing.
Q We now have Professor Sir Edward Peck on the line as well. Would you like to introduce yourself for the record, Sir Edward?
Q I should declare that I am an honorary professor of Nottingham Trent University. Good morning to you, Professor Edward Peck. You have written about the short course trial. Obviously, the numbers have been small at the moment, although the purpose of the trial is not about numbers. You said that focusing on the numbers taking the short course trial is missing the point. Could you explain why, and why you think there will be significant take-up of the LLE?
Yes; thank you. I am happy to do that, Minister. The short course is only in its first year so far. It was trying to do something relatively quickly and it did not get as many students registering as you might have hoped, but I think it is premature to judge what might happen in years two and three of that pilot. There are other things we are trying to learn from that pilot about the regulatory regime and the capacity of the Student Loans Company to deal with a new form of loan for modules. There is a lot of learning coming out of the pilot.
In terms of demand, if you look at the stabilisation of foundation degrees—the two-year degrees—the demand for HNCs, HNDs or HTQs, and the number of advanced learner loan level 4 and 5 courses being run, there is a lot of evidence for sub full-degree level technical and vocational education. What the LLE will do is open up a whole new range of people who either want to do a particular module of that provision, or want to do it in bitesize chunks rather than commit to the whole programme at the outset. I think the numbers at levels 4 and 5 are already significant, and the LLE will increase those numbers even more.
Q You have talked about the advanced learner loan as well, and the numbers taking that up. Could you expand on that a bit?
Yes, about 9,000 to 10,000 students each year are doing the advanced learner loans. There are programmes such as the diploma in social care and the diploma in construction site management, which are level 4 or 5 programmes. You will be able to take modules of those on the lifelong loan entitlement. There are some technical questions about how you work out the credit arrangements for advanced learner loans, but I know that the DfE is doing a lot more thinking about that. There will be further guidance and consultation on how advanced learner loans are integrated into the LLE in due course. I understand that is work in progress.
We have a very close relationship, whereby we do all the training and education for level 4 and above for the people of Mansfield and Ashfield and the college does level 3 and below. That means we can design the programmes in the college to have really easy pathways of progression from level 3 to level 4 and, in future, we will start promoting the options around modular provision in the programmes we already run at Mansfield, in things like computing, construction management and those sorts of areas, where there is a real demand for skills.
If I can give you one example, we are seeing really high uptake in a level 4 course we are running in retrofit green construction. There is a massive demand. Eighty per cent. of the houses that we will live in in 2050 are already built, and the challenge is to retrofit them to be greener and more energy efficient. We do not have a workforce to do that. We now have a level 4 course in Mansfield where you can study that particular skill and, in future, you will be able to study it on a modular basis, which will open it up to a greater range of people who do not want to study that particular course full-time.
Q Hello Professor—good to see you. Likewise, I was very impressed by Mansfield when I came to visit. I am just interested to know your thoughts on the rationale of having a minimum of 30 credits. Do you think we should be considering a lower threshold?
It is a challenge we faced on the Augar review, when we considered what the credit basis should be of a lifelong loan entitlement. Thirty credits hits a compromise between having a level of granularity where the Student Loans Company can give and administer loans for both fees and maintenance, and the bitesize learning that people are going to want to do. Thirty credits is notionally 300 hours of learning. I think it is the best compromise to start off with between those two different pressures that drive in different directions—the SLC to make it bigger, and maybe some of the requirements of learners for more bitesized learning to make it smaller. I think it is one of those things where we should just see how it rolls out as we implement and then change it if it seems like we have not quite got the balance right.
Q Okay. I know that in Canada, for example, they offer 10, don’t they? That seems to be quite successful.
Yes. You can bundle them, actually, can’t you? You can sign up for three 10-credit modules. It is slightly clunkier than the Canadian system, but again, I think it will give people a chance to do smaller bitesize modules without having to take a loan out for every 10 credits, which I think would stretch the capacity of the Student Loans Company. I heard my colleague talking about transaction costs. If you start to get down to 10 credits per module, the transaction costs of recruiting the student, inducting them and so on gets quite large in relation to the fee you might get, so there is an economy of scale for providers around 30 credits as well.
Q Finally, can I just ask you about the future of the apprenticeship levy? It is currently not written into, or not within, this legislation. How do you see that sitting alongside the lifelong loan entitlement and the role for employers?
Yes; I do think many employers will make use of the modular learning that the lifelong loan entitlement will promote. I think many employers will pay for their staff to do some of this upskilling and reskilling as part of investment in their training more broadly, which takes place outside the levy. I think there are some challenges at the moment about the levy and its size, aren’t there? We might be getting to a point where much of the levy is now being committed around apprenticeships, which is a real success. The question is: how do we keep apprenticeships growing over the next five to 10 years? That is for a very different group of staff. Apprenticeships often are for new starters or people completely changing their career with an employer, whereas the LLE is about modules enabling people to upskill and reskill when they are already in the workforce and established in the workforce.
Q At the moment, students come and study part-time or via the workplace. Predominantly, who pays for those courses?
Q Do you have a “finger in the wind” kind of breakdown between own-paid for and employer-paid for?
At NTU, the vast majority of UK undergraduate students are paid for by the Student Loans Company loans. We have some students undertaking short courses, which are professional qualifications and paid for by their employers, and about 2,000 apprentices who are, again, paid for by their employers. At the moment, it is heavily weighted towards full-time undergraduates, and I think that is the challenge that the LLE is trying to unlock.
Q I was trying to exclude the full-time undergraduate. I am trying to get at if there is a danger that, for some of those who might already be accessing technical, part-time, upskilling skills courses that are paid for by their employers, the employers will shift that burden on to the students. My follow-up question, which I have asked to other panel members, is do you believe there are other things that can be done to ensure that employers do not shift that burden—for example, in regulation putting things that make it clear that this is for personal, not professional, development?
It is a really interesting challenge. One of the things that the short course pilot should tell us, even if they are relatively small numbers, is how many trainers are paying for themselves through taking out a loan with the SLC and how many are coming in through employers. There is a suggestion that there are bigger numbers doing those modular programmes but actually they are being paid for by employers. I have not seen the data on that yet, but I am trying to get those data to see if that is the case.
I think most employers would see it as part of their responsibility to pay for training their current employees. Indeed, they might want to do that in a different way from doing it employee by employee. In sufficient numbers, you would commission your own training; that happens already. It is important to ensure that we are not transferring the cost from employers to the individual employee. I think how you do that is a really interesting question, which probably bears more consideration, but there may be ways of ensuring that that does not happen.
Thank you so much for your evidence. As we transition into this new world, I am interested in hearing your expert view on where you are seeing immediate demand—for example, the renewable energy retrofit gets discussed regularly in Lancashire. Could you give us the top three from both of your perspectives?Q
The main one we are seeing is around computer science; that is definitely top of the agenda. The other ones for us in terms of all the range of skills are things like the artificial intelligence and robotics space, and absolutely sustainability. That understanding of sustainability actually touches a lot of subjects, whether that is housing through the retrofit or others. Those are the three areas that are definitely at the top at the moment.
Q That is very interesting. It almost reflects the economic drivers in the Salford-Manchester complex at the moment, even before we get the National Cyber Force up at Samlesbury. Sorry, Professor Peck, I wanted to make sure that was right. What are you saying, outside of retrofitting?
If there are no further questions from Members, I thank the witnesses for their evidence, and we will move on to the next panel.