We will now hear oral evidence from Professor Malcolm Press CBE, chair of University UK’s advisory group on the lifelong loan entitlement and vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Professor Press is appearing by Zoom. I remind Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill, and we must stick to the timings in the programme order that the Committee has agreed. We have until 9.50 am for this panel. Professor Press, could you please introduce yourself for the record?
Q Good morning, Professor Press. Thank you for being a witness. The chief executive of Universities UK said:
“A more flexible approach to higher education funding is right for learners, right for employers and right for providers.”
In what ways would greater flexibility in the student finance system be beneficial to students? How do you think the lifelong loan entitlement will encourage more part-time students to take up learning?
The flexibility is welcome. It will help people to align their study with the other demands on their life, both their personal life and their professional career journey. It will make a big difference. For part-time learners in particular, the maintenance elements are very welcome, and the removal of the ELQ—the equivalent or lower qualification—rule will also be helpful, since for some people that has been a barrier to learning, particularly later on in life.
Q What will be the impact on universities? Obviously, it is hard to know how behaviours will change, but once level 6 is introduced under the lifelong loan entitlement, how do you think universities will respond?
The response of universities is not just dependent on level 6 being introduced; it is dependent on programmes that are not HTQs—higher technical qualifications—being opened up. That will be the key thing. At the moment, you will find that universities that want to offer HTQs will do so, and we very much welcome that, but the majority of students at the majority of universities are not doing HTQs, so the long-term success of this will depend on opening up flexibility for regular degree programmes. That is where the big transformation will come.
Q Given what you say about HTQs, and level 4 and 5, do you foresee much greater collaboration between universities and further education colleges once the lifelong loan entitlement is up and running?
There will have to be, otherwise people will leave just with a series of certificates. The challenge is that employers will find it difficult to understand what those things mean. The lifelong loan entitlement provides an opportunity to build up micro-credentials and to stack them into qualifications, and that really matters. That will require collaboration between institutions, whether they are further education or higher education.
Good morning, professor. I will start with questions about the funding model for higher education institutions. What impact do you think the introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement and the proposed funding model in the Bill will have on higher education providers, particularly given the declining unit of resourceQ ?
I think the LLE will open up opportunities for part-time learners, and that is to be welcomed enormously. The unit of resource is fixed, as we know. You might come on to ask me about this, but the bit I find most difficult to understand is the difference between the credit-based and the fixed-mechanism methods of calculating the fee cap. I hope you will ask me a question about that; I think that needs a bit of clarification. However, the sector will continue to face challenges when it comes to delivering at quality, given that the fee cap is frozen. Nevertheless, the opportunity to open up learning to new groups of students is welcome, and will be beneficial to business and the country.
As I understand it—forgive me if I have got this wrong—it is up to the Secretary of State to decide which method will apply. My understanding of what the Bill is trying to do is this: in a sense, we should enable any credit to be costed at a credit fee’s cost, and it should be up to the providers to assess whether there is demand and supply—a demand for the learning at credit level—and whether, if that is opened up, businesses and employers will want to recognise the value of that. At the moment, it feels like a slightly false divide, and it leaves the decision as to what can and cannot be offered in a modular way to the Secretary of State. That is how I have understood it, but if I have got that wrong, I apologise.
Q May I pick up on the point raised by the Minister about collaboration between institutions, whether that is between FE and HE, or laterally, between HE and HE or FE and FE? You are in Manchester; you have a good cluster there. Do you think that this might work better in metropolitan, urban areas, but be much more difficult for a coastal or town-based FE college in a wider, open, more remote landscape?
For modular learning that is purely attendance-based, yes, I think you are right. I think it will be easier to operationalise in places such as Greater Manchester, and I suppose part of the learning that we will get as the LLE is phased in is an understanding of the obstacles that might exist. Then perhaps we can work out ways of addressing those in areas where there is not a large cluster of HE and FE providers. Of course, the largest university in the country is the Open University, and I think we have to think more flexibly about either blended or digital learning. There may be opportunities for institutions that are not clustered in the way that they are here in Manchester to take full advantage of partnerships.
Good morning, Professor Press. We are grateful to you for being with us today. I have two questions. First, do you think this approach is exciting for universities and offers real opportunities for advance? Secondly, what administrative challenges do you foresee for your university arising from the introduction of this approach and the courses offered?Q
Those are great questions. I really do think it is exciting, because it provides learners with the opportunity to study in a different way, and the more we can do to encourage people to focus on their professional development, the better it will be for our businesses and employers across the country.
The key challenge, I think, will be around the information, advice and guidance that people get about what the opportunity is, particularly for adult learners, who may not be in institutions that are used to providing that sort of careers guidance. That will be a particular challenge for any institution. Who is responsible for doing all of that? There will be many partners responsible for doing that, and that really does matter.
The challenges for my university—I am answering as vice-chancellor, rather than as a UUK representative—will be the mechanics of how we do all this. We are used to recruiting, admitting, onboarding, educating and supporting with pastoral care students who come mostly for three or four-year programmes. We will have to evolve ways of doing that for students who come for 30-credit—or multiple 30-credit—modules. There will be an additional cost of doing that, so we will need to work out what we can offer that can be delivered sustainably, given the cost base. That means that there will need to be a sufficient supply of students wanting to take a particular module, and a demand from the workplace for those students to achieve a successful outcome. We will look very carefully at what we offer. This gives us a chance to tailor our provision to local demand from employers. It is not without its challenges, but it is an exciting prospect.
Q Will this mean that you need more collaboration with other universities and colleges in your area, so that you are not duplicating, and so that you can fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, so that students and would-be students have the greatest choice?
That is exactly right. I will not digress too much, but in Manchester we have an organisation called the Oxford Road Corridor, which is the businesses and employers on the Oxford Road; they include my university and the University of Manchester. We are already looking at what Manchester Met and the University of Manchester can offer together to support the other members of the corridor, which are the Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester City Council and some private businesses, and to encourage local people to upskill. We are already trying to work together, and this makes it easier because it provides a mechanism and a funding stream that can assist with that.
On the number of new students who are likely to take up learning opportunities and would not have done so without this provision, how much of a game changer do you believe this legislation will be? Is it likely to bring lots of new students into learning, or will it just be an alternative option for those who would have studied? Secondly, is there anything you would like to see in the legislation that might enable it to be used by more learners?Q
Our university does not offer higher technical qualifications, and we do not validate providers that deliver HTQs. At the moment, the provision is targeted at a particular group of learners. Once it opens up in 2027-28, it will provide significant opportunities for both new and current learners who might want to space out their learning in a different way. My understanding—again, forgive me if I have misunderstood—is that this will develop slowly while we work out how we can operationalise it, and then there is a point at which it can open out and support many additional new learners.
While local employers will not provide the courses, there is not much point in us putting on modular learning if there is not a demand for the students who have gained that learning. We are a large and accessible provider of degree apprenticeships, and we work with over 500 employers in thinking about what sort of apprenticeships to run. I will be thinking about extending engagement with our apprentice employers, so that we can have the same sorts of conversations about putting on modular learning. It is through the providers that the employers will have the opportunity.
I was interested to hear what you said about the link to local businesses, and you mentioned the city council. I am particularly interested in the skills and educational landscape at regional level. Greater Manchester is one of two trailblazer mayoral combined authorities; the other is the West Midlands. What is your sense of the role for the Mayor and the mayoral combined authority in all this?Q
In Greater Manchester, we have a civic university agreement between the five higher education providers and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. We work very closely together. The proposed legislation gives us the opportunity to align much more closely what we can provide and the sorts of skills that the combined authority wishes to deliver, because of the benefit there will be to local businesses and employers. I am very positive about working with the combined authority. The key thing to note is that the relationships are good, the conversations take place and people know one another. That builds trust and confidence and enables us to have the right sorts of conversations that deliver positive outcomes.
Q Professor, could we come back to the financial implications and the administrative side of delivering this in institutions? Could you expand on how you think it will work? How much additional resource might be required in the delivery of short-length courses versus the traditional model for a higher education institution?
I have not done the modelling and am not sure whether anyone else has yet, but there will be an additional cost from doing this. It is clear that that is bound to be the case. If people are taking, for instance, four 30-credit modules rather than one level 4 or 5 programme, there will be onboarding and exiting costs associated with the student four times over compared with just once. As you will appreciate, Matt, universities spend a lot of time, effort and money on inducting, familiarising, briefing and onboarding students. We would have to do that every time a new student came to study a 30-credit module.
There will also be the costs and complexities associated with the production of the certificates, and if credit transfers were to take place with other organisations. It is going to be costly. I do not know what the exact costs are, so I am sorry but I am unable to answer your question in a quantitative way.
Q I understand that, and I do not think you are alone in not having done the modelling. I guess if you are talking about a 30-credit module versus a traditional year of, say, 120 credits, it would not necessarily be four times the administrative burden. It will not be four times 30, but it could be three times or two times or something like that. Do you think that is a reasonable assumption?
It would depend on whether a student is a returning student or in a new body of students, and on their particular needs. Some students will benefit from this. Thinking particularly about our local context, something like half our students here at Manchester Met are the first in their family to come to university, about a third of them come from families with parental incomes of below £25,000, and about a third are from black, Asian or minority ethnic communities where they had other responsibilities, such as working or care.
We put a lot of effort into supporting these students. We put millions into our student hardship fund to help these students. There are all sorts of other complexities in addition to the technical aspects, including onboarding and those types of things that cost universities money. We invest in our students because we believe in their futures. It is much more complicated than a simple “three times” or “two times” kind of numerical argument. I am going to have to go away and do some work on that.
First, I draw attention to my registered interest in the universities sector.Q
I am interested in what you were touching on in respect of the wraparound pastoral care that you offer students. I studied my masters over three years, part time at the University of Sussex, but I was a student throughout the whole of it, so the university was able to offer that wraparound care. In a modular system, in which people pay for modules and may come back in a year or two, how will you be able to offer that continuing care? Even if they have breaks of only a few months, they might still need some kind of care as a student. Have you considered how you would organise that?
Professor Press, I am sorry but, given the constraints of time and the fact that we have many other witnesses, I am afraid I have to end your session there. I thank you immensely for taking the time to give evidence to our Committee.