Towards a tertiary system:

Will the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) redefine how the HE sector sees itself?

Rachel Hill-Kelly, FAHEP (she/her)

Assistant Company Secretary 

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

Dr Ella (Turner) Popper, SFHEA (she/her)

Head of Professional Development, AHEP

If you are wondering what tertiary education is, how the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) might be implemented, and what this means for higher education institutions, you are not the only one. Whether you’re wondering or not, it’s a policy issue that will eventually impact the work of all HE professionals and this article outlines the central factors for consideration.

The Association of Higher Education Professionals (AHEP) first delved into the knotty issue of the LLE following the government’s response to the Augar Review in early 2022. The government response included the introduction of the LLE as the latest evolution of post-compulsory education thinking. This is driven partly by the skills agenda and partly by the increasing diversity of post-16 education, and a desire to break up the dominance of the three-year degree. The concept of the LLE draws together higher, technical, vocational, and further education by opening the opportunity for students to navigate their learning in small modular chunks. The LLE’s potential to draw together the different pathways through the various parts of post-compulsory education is increasingly challenging perceptions of established discrete areas of post-compulsory education, in turn influencing a terminology of one sector – tertiary. 

Back in April 2022, AHEP convened a panel of experts from across the tertiary sector led by Sir Philip Augar, which identified the LLE as a massive step forward to “address the collapse in adult education” (Augar, 2022) with the potential to transform the tertiary education system in England. However, the government’s piecemeal response to Augar’s recommendations, combined with a struggling economy and the funding system for further and higher education, posed more questions than answers about the challenges and complexity of rolling out the LLE. 

A unified post compulsory system?

Moving forward over 18 months and little progress has been made as the higher education sector continues to ask what the LLE policy will mean in practice. The Society for Research into Higher Education (SHRE) international conference posed this very question in December 2023. Furthermore, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) looked at the impact on quality assurance in its lifelong learning entitlement policy briefing. Therefore, big questions continue to surround the practical implementation of the LLE to ensure it meets the policy intent of reducing the skills gap, bringing equity in the delivery of lifelong learning and widening participation. All this head-scratching provides useful contributions to the debate, but there is little concrete in place for those feeling around in the dark, trying to prepare for the unknown. The government’s own LLE trial saw only 125 participants enrol rather than the expected 2400 suggesting further clarity is needed on potential benefits and implementation before anticipated demand crystalises into student take-up.  

However, there are strong indicators for the direction of travel that we need to be aware of. The nations of the UK are moving towards a tertiary system with FE and HE considered a part of this system. Wales has established a new body, the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research and Scotland’s Funding Council (a merger of separate further and higher education agencies) produced a report endorsed by the Scottish Government supporting greater coherence across its further and higher education sectors. Northern Ireland has developed a number of collaborative forums across FE and HE, and Ireland is progressing a unified tertiary system. In England, the London region has become a ‘tertiary testbed’ (London Higher, 2023) which has seen new Institutes of Technology fostering greater collaboration between colleges, universities, and business. So, although the devil of the detail of the LLE may not be apparent, we can sense the winds of change – and change is something we will need to prepare for.

What is in a name?

Just how much change might we see? Higher education has always maintained that a degree is more than simply chunks of teaching and learning that can be consumed in isolation from the whole student experience. The 3-year degree is a model UKHE PLC has been selling around the world as a gold standard in education for many years, and institutional reputation is a fundamental cornerstone of funding and student recruitment. Call the sector what you like, but in an increasingly competitive environment with squeezed budgets, will higher education really stop selling itself as the pinnacle of the education system and adopt that new terminology? 

However, in a sector where financial constraints are increasingly prescient for both students and institutions, there is an appeal for students in the LLE and considerations for institutions in meeting that demand. There are big questions about LLE’s implementation, including reconciling regulatory compliance requirements with respect to student outcomes, the potential for a poacher/gamekeeper dichotomy between institutions and the practical operational aspects of recruitment, course design, progression, quality assurance and accreditation. This preparation will touch on all professional services in the sector, and therefore, professional staff need to consider their readiness. Leadership, Agility and Adaptability and Engaging with the Wider Context are core capabilities every professional will need in their portfolio.

And if you’re still not convinced, remember there is a general election around the corner. Should there be a change of government, there may be greater impetus to move towards a tertiary system – after all, the Commission in Wales has been overseen by Labour… Maybe it is time to stop thinking of higher education as, well… higher? Let us be honest; there has always been snobbery around higher being better than vocational and technical education. Could a unified tertiary system remove the binary and change how we value education? Or is there something about higher education – is a degree and the university experience more than the sum of the parts the LLE suggests it is? 

We have convened a panel of experts to debate all this and more at the AHEP Annual Conference 24 -26 March. Join the debate by registering here today!

Why you should join AHEP

Rachel Hill-Kelly, FAHEP (she/her)

Assistant Company Secretary 

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

What’s in it for me?

There’s nothing else like it in the sector that will offer support no matter what job role you take on or what your career trajectory. Other organisations might offer training and some development but AHEP offers support too, tailored to your own unique career journey. It’s a long-term investment in yourself.

Finding new friends in the sector was an unexpected bonus. Networking is hard and not only has it felt easier within AHEP I have also developed some real connections, and found a dance partner as keen as I to dance the night away at  the AHEP conference gala!

What experiences have had an impact on your career?

I attended a great session on reforming Boards at the AHEP conference last year, it really got me thinking about how to effect change and ensure meaningful evaluation of how effective a Board is. That reflection has been fundamental to my thinking about meeting KPIs in my own organisation this year. 

What benefits have you personally found of being an AHEP member? 

There are lots of benefits from my membership. The professional framework has helped me navigate my professional development in the sector including completing a fellowship. I have been able to build a great network to support both my work and professional development and to be able to mentor others and see them succeed is really rewarding. 

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