In a speech given this week, the prime minister recognised that learning should not end in your teens or twenties. His decision to provide all adults with a fully-funded level 3 course and a lifelong learning entitlement for four years of post-18 education will unlock opportunities for individuals across age groups, geographies and sectors. 

Technological advances and the global Covid-19 pandemic have changed the availability and type of work available beyond recognition. These changes affect not only those starting out in their careers but also those mid-career and beyond. Alongside such massive shifts in domestic and global labour markets, must also come change to give greater flexibility in how learners access higher education – and the promise of more flexible higher education loans is a welcome start.

The prime minister said that changes will be made to make it easier for older learners to study and train part-time. If we see policy changes to make this happen, this will improve the life-chances of individuals, strengthen their communities, benefit employers and repair our economy. Universities UK’s work in 2013 and joint work with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in 2018 set out the importance of part-time and more flexible learning in higher education to the economy and society. Overlooking older learners, and their requirements for learning – such as juggling study alongside other commitments – has for too long felt an oversight and missed opportunity. We want urgent action to be taken in the forthcoming post-16 white paper.

Our 2018 research showed that the most common reason, after financial reasons, for not taking up part-time higher education was a lack of flexibility in fitting study alongside other life commitments.

Being able to study at one’s own pace is crucial when studying while working or caring for dependents. Currently a learner cannot access finance for their study unless committing to at least 25% of a full-time equivalent course and to a specific qualification. This lack of flexibility has held back student demand for more bite-sized learning, and restricted the number of modules on offer at universities at the undergraduate level. It is our hope that the government’s proposed changes to provide finance for shorter term studies will sweep away this lack of flexibility and open up opportunities for those for whom further study was previously out of reach. Support for living costs will also be crucial, and UUK has long argued for grants for those who need them the most.

The proposed lifelong learning entitlement of up to four years of post-18 education must apply to those who have already graduated with a degree, who made their learning choices pre-pandemic, and working in (or hoping to work in) sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. Recent graduates are facing unprecedented challenges and competition for work, and must not be overlooked.

The lifelong learning entitlement aims to bring higher and further education closer together.

It is positive to see there is growing collaboration between higher and further education and employers, with a wealth of diversity in the approaches taken. However, collaborations require time and resource to develop. Alongside the lifelong learning entitlement, government will need to ensure the right support and incentives are in place for colleges and universities to work together, overcoming their competitive differences, for the benefit of the learner.

As the economy reels with the impact of the pandemic, there has never been a better time to raise the aspirations of those both in and out of work to retrain for jobs of the future. Much rests on how and when the ambitions set out in the prime minister’s speech will be realised – universities are ready to work closely with government to ensure rapid progress is made, and to avoid a prolonged and painful economic downturn.  The ambitions set out have the potential to be life-changing for many individuals – and so change must happen quickly.