The lifelong learning entitlement after party conference season  


By Jonathan Woodhead

Party conference season has come to an end.  

The main political parties in England have discussed many aspects of education and skills policy, including to varying degrees the specific proposal of the LLE.  

We are now able to assess their relative positions on the LLE, as we inch ever closer to the next general election, expected in spring or autumn 2024.


Conservative Party: Fusing the LLE and apprenticeship levy  

To be clear from the outset, the LLE is a policy of the Conservative government.  

The LLE provides an entitlement of £37,000 to fund upskilling and reskilling at Level 4-6. The £37,000 is calculated, as many people are aware, on the basis of four years of tuition fees for full-time Level 6 higher education (i.e. 4 x £9,250). 

Critically, the LLE has been officially renamed: no longer the Lifelong Loan Entitlement but the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.  

The ‘loan’ moniker was dropped after the Lifelong Learning Act.  

The LLE is still a loan – a loan for tuition that is – but the Conservatives hope the name won’t act as a deterrent!  

While it was good to see the recent adoption of the Fee Limits legislation, so that credit-based fees wouldn’t end up costing more than an equivalent degree, much more information needs to be forthcoming.  

The Short Courses trial was not a success. There are a number of reasons why that was, not least that the subject range was too narrow. We’ve been promised more information in Winter 2023 and Spring 2024.  

And before the start of party conference, we were informed by the permanent secretary at the Department for Education that the start date for the roll-out of the LLE could well be delayed until after September 2025 because of significant implementation challenges.  

As well as detail on the LLE itself there are additional policy questions which need addressing.  

FE wants to know why the Adult Learner Loan system will remain to fund Level 3 reskilling when the LLE is rolled-out. HE wants to know why Level 7 master degrees will continue to be funded separately from the LLE.  

All of this, of course, was known before the Conservative party held their conference in Manchester.  

On balance, the talk at the Conservative party conference was apprenticeships, apprenticeships, apprenticeships - especially degree apprenticeships at Level 6. 

Indeed, when discussion of HE in general and the LLE in particular surfaced the focus was on the interaction between the Apprenticeships Levy and the LLE under a future Conservative Government.


Labour Party: all quiet on the LLE  

Determined to retain their ‘retail offer’ to the British people closer to the time of the general election, the main issue in platform speeches and fringe meetings with regard to HE was the re-introduction of maintenance grants.  

Their return was recommended in the Augar Review of post-18 education published in May 2019.  

Sadly, there was no details on the scope of maintenance grants supported by Labour at their conference.  

Means-tested maintenance grants should be available to full-time students on Level 4-5 vocational degrees as well as Level 6 first degrees. And they would be particularly welcome for part-time students - on Level 4-6 courses - the vast majority of whom are older learners aged 25 and over.  

Equally, there was very little word about the LLE.  

While Labour have signed up to the principles of the LLE, they haven’t given any details of what a ‘Labour LLE’ might look like.  

Maybe they’re still thinking about it but with legislation at such a skeletal stage it’s time for them to have a vision of what this looks like. There are some in the HE sector who see the LLE as a distraction and would be happy to see it extinguished.  

On the other hand, there was shortage of debate at the Labour Party conference on reforming the UK Apprenticeship Levy into a more flexible Growth and Skills Levy. 


Liberal Democrats: a different policy to the LLE  

The Liberal Democrats, especially Lib Dem peers, have been champions of lifelong learning for many years.  

Scarred by the tuition fee issue during the years of Coalition Government (2010-2015), the Liberal Democrats proposed the idea of a Skills Wallet at the time of the 2019 general election.  

Every adult would be entitled to £10,000 to fund education and training over a 30-year period.  

The Treasury would put £4,000 in the wallet by the age 25, another £3,000 at age 40 and a final £3,000 at age 55. Employers and individuals can make additional payments as and when appropriate.  

This seems a bold proposal given funding takes the form of a grant rather than a loan, akin to maintenance grants in higher education.  

It appears, however, that the Skills Wallet will fund the cost of tuition rather than living costs, and Level 4-6 higher education rather than Level 3 and below adult further education.  

As a grant-based proposal, the up-front cost the Treasury could be significant. Assuming there are 650,000 young adults aged 25 and the Skills Wallet was introduced in April 2026, the cost would be c£2.6bn.  

This level of funding would be required every year as young adults reach the age of 25. But the costs don’t exceed this until those aged 25 in April 2026 reach 40 years old in April 2041, when an extra £2.15bn will be needed.  

We’ll have to await the Liberal Democrat’s general election manifesto for the detailed costings but there’s no doubt the Skills Wallet is a different beast to the LLE. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats want a full-scale reform of the UK Apprenticeship Levy in a similar fashion to the Labour Party.  

The politics  

The Conservatives are clear over the LLE. They support it because they created it.  

The Liberal Democrats have an alternative to the LLE: the Skills Wallet.  

But with Labour, we’re still rather in the dark.  

Prior to conference, Labour indicated that it recognised the possibilities the LLE could bring especially in terms of a flexible funding system.  

It’s a pity that the Labour Opposition, who might form the next Government as a majority or minority administration, is unable to articulate its own vision for the HE element of lifelong learning.  

Everyone accepts both the uncertainties over the public finances and the cost of the LLE if many more adults use their loan entitlement than the Treasury assumes.  

Even so, a little more detail would be appreciated.  

Jonathan Woodhead is the Policy Adviser at Birkbeck, University of London but is writing in a personal capacity.