Skip to main content Accessibility Statement

15 January 2024

The future of lifelong learning


Helena Vine
Policy & Public Affairs Officer, QAA

Voices across the sector have expressed dismay at the outcomes of the recent Lifelong Learning Entitlement pilot scheme. Two months on from the publication of our policy series paper on the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, QAA's Policy & Public Affairs Officer Helena Vine reflects on where this important initiative can go from here.

Concerns around operationalising the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) have been floating around the sector for some time. Last year, in our ‘Quality in England’ series, we at QAA warned that the ambition of the policy was being shackled by the detail, and we've seen some of those concerns borne out in the evaluation of the short courses trial published last week.


While lots of the coverage has focused on the low take-up of the trial, the results also demonstrate some of the broader issues at play if the LLE is to be a success. 


We've learnt that developing the short courses proved to be ‘more complex than simply converting one or more pre-existing degree modules’. Some had to be adjusted down to the correct level of qualification, others reconfigured to provide a learning experience centred around a new type of learner. This has fed into the argument prevalent in the sector that a degree programme is more than the sum of its parts – and that you therefore you can't complete just 12% of it and expect to reap a full 12% of the benefits. Standalone modules work differently to modules that form parts of larger programmes, and reconfiguring modules so that they can work on their own is a bigger job that simply chopping up a degree curriculum, as the providers involved found out. This is why QAA has been cautious about the ‘parent programme’ aspect of LLE policy because of its potential to stifle the development of innovative short courses designed to be taken in isolation.


The fact that delivering on the LLE will be a bigger job than initially envisioned is strongly suggested throughout the evaluation. Manoeuvring short courses through approval processes designed for full degree programmes was harder and more time-consuming than had been anticipated, leading some to be launched without the value of bearing credit. The whole process has come across as onerous, difficult and, sadly, failing to reap the returns commensurate with the levels of effort involved. For providers who increasingly operate under tighter and tighter constraints, it’s difficult to see the appeal of hurling themselves into this whole new world with little promise of material reward.


One aspect of the original proposals about which our policy paper raised particular concerns was the minimum 30-credit threshold for these short courses. Student feedback from these pilots was limited but it suggested the level of work involved, especially independent study, surprised participants. Indeed, four providers reported wanting shorter courses and questioned whether a course of more than 13 weeks duration was in fact a ‘short course’ at all.


Because, frankly, it’s probably not. It’s the size of a pretty chunky degree module. In fact, our own report highlighted that short courses and micro-credentials are often considerably smaller, and this is part of their appeal to both learners and employers.


In terms of such stickier policy points, the ‘big bad’ of the LLE - the requirement for credit transfer - also put in an inevitable appearance in the fallout from these trials. The evaluators considered the lack of a framework that enables students to build up credit, whether within one institution or between several, was a ‘serious weakness’.


The fact that providers couldn't guarantee what's referred to as the ‘future value’ of the credit their students earn unsurprisingly presented a barrier to take-up, and begged the question: How many prospective students will be willing to take such courses if they don’t know whether their investments of time and effort and financial commitments will mean anything very much once they’re done? This doesn’t fit well in the outcomes-focused system we’re working within, nor the constrained economic conditions which many of those who might most benefit from such provision may experience - even without the added stresses of the cost-of-living crisis.


While credit transfer isn’t absolutely essential for the LLE to work, it does change the game. Without it, we’re looking at a bit of upskilling for those who've probably already engaged in higher education, and maybe - if we're lucky - a greater engagement in longer-term part-time learning from those who haven’t.


That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it's definitely not what the government had in mind.


This evaluation has validated many of the arguments about the LLE which we at QAA - and others in the sector - have been making for a while. It's come as a disappointment to many of us, but let's hope it will serve as something of a wake-up call for those who've quite rightly been championing this key initiative.


The LLE is a good enough idea that every effort should be made to make it work. And that will of course require that the policy be reimagined in the light of these results. That's, after all, what such pilot schemes are for.


Some may suppose that the trial results are so small it's difficult to extrapolate much from them with absolute confidence. But the fact that they’re so small is a warning sign in and of itself. In its current form, the LLE looks like many other seismic policy ideas that have eventually fallen by the wayside – absolutely right in principle, but tragically divorced from the educational systems and social structures in which they have to operate.


Let’s use this evaluation to help us get this vital policy right - because, with the way the wind is blowing, a lot of the sector’s relevance, appeal and impact might just depend on it.