Skills and Post 16 Education Bill – What is it and why does it matter to Birkbeck?

Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Adviser at Birkbeck, shares an update on the new ‘Skills and Post-16 Education Bill’ and the position Birkbeck could occupy in its implementation.

Recent developments, including the shift to remote working, the decline of certain sectors post-Covid and the loss of skilled and unskilled workers from the EU, have brought into perspective some of the challenges facing the UK’s traditional model of higher education. This, in tandem with the more long-term trends of automation (often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution), low productivity and an ageing workforce, pose major problems for the UK economy now and in the future.

Most of the workforce for the next decade are already in employment and those with the lowest skills are at the greatest risk of losing out to automation. It is therefore vital that people are given high-quality opportunities to reskill and retrain throughout their careers. In response to these issues, the Government launched the ‘Skills for Jobs’ White Paper in January 2021, aimed at providing a Lifetime Skills Guarantee for those without Level 3 (A-level equivalent) qualifications, and introducing funding for a Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) for higher and further education by 2025. The intention is to make higher education loans more flexible and accessible for people over 21, allowing learners to space out their study across their lifetimes and careers, “to support people to retrain for the jobs of the future.”

As an institution with a near 200-year history of educating working Londoners, Birkbeck have been paying close attention to this White Paper, and the subsequent ‘Skills and Post-16 Education Bill’ which is currently passing through Parliament. In the early stages of the Bill, senior Birkbeck staff were even involved in conversations with 10 Downing Street, the Department of Education and the Treasury about the nature of the proposal, to draw on our experience in delivering high-quality and accessible adult education.

Currently, our students work in spite of the funding system, rather than because of it. If the system is changed to allow and encourage more flexible learning, then Birkbeck and our community stand to benefit. With proper funding and implementation, the LLE programme could initiate a significant shift in the way education is approached. By reducing the pressure on students to undertake undergraduate education in ‘one-shot’, it could become easier for people and employers to react to the increasingly rapid evolution of business and industry, and train or retrain accordingly. This may in turn significantly increase uptake in flexible, evening-study courses.

Birkbeck is a strong supporter of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement as proposed in the Skills Bill. While the current proposal plans to offer loans for the equivalent of four years of post-18 education, we would like to see a six-year equivalent entitlement. This is important because a common route for entry to higher education is through a foundation year before an undergraduate 3(+) year degree. Therefore, in many cases the four-year entitlement would be used in ‘one go’, leaving no further opportunities for ‘lifelong learning’. Those studying an integrated Master’s programme (4 years) would face the same problem. Birkbeck also agrees with former Universities Minister Lord (Jo) Johnson who, among other Peers, encouraged the government to remove any Equivalent or Lesser Qualifications (ELQ) restrictions. Under these restrictions if someone already holds the same or lower qualifications than the course they are studying for, they would be denied funding. We believe that this goes against the grain of lifelong learning.

There are still several points of clarification required as the Bill goes through Parliament, including questions about the availability of maintenance loans, the repayment terms and how transferrable courses will be between different universities. There are also early-stage proposals to provide further funding for short courses or modules, to facilitate opportunities to obtain ‘bite-size’ qualifications. This would benefit those looking to acquire or develop skills rapidly, such as courses in coding or language skills. Birkbeck hopes to be involved in these pilot schemes in the future.

The Bill still has some way to go before being enacted in 2025 and we expect to see considerable change to the student finance system before the right balance is struck. We hope that the introduction of flexible student funding and the greater emphasis placed on lifelong learning will make a positive, tangible impact on the way people and employers approach education.

Jonathan WoodheadEmail: