3 May 2023
Peter Aldous speaks in debate on Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill

Speaking in the Third Reading debate, Peter Aldous welcomes the Government’s efforts to enable people to realise their full potential through lifelong learning, but calls for the measures in this Bill to be part of a wider, coherent post-16 education and skills strategy.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, this Bill has the potential to be truly transformational. It can play a key role in enabling people to realise their full potential, help cure the current British disease of low productivity and be a vital component part in work to deliver meaningful levelling up. However, it is only one piece of the jigsaw. Without other reforms and initiatives, there is a risk that it will not deliver and its objectives will not be met.

Times are changing rapidly and we must deliver meaningful lifelong learning. We have an ageing population, and the days of a job for life are long gone. Climate change means that a raft of new emerging jobs require upskilling and retraining. The fourth industrial revolution is well and truly under way. We are, in effect, in a global race and if we do not step up to the plate, the UK will be left far behind. If the Bill is to succeed, we must recognise the vital importance of adult education, which has been neglected for too long, with participation rates today half what they were in 2004. Investment by employers in workforce skills must increase. We must ensure that the least advantaged have every opportunity to participate. There must be better co-ordination across the whole education and training system. Further education, higher education and apprenticeships are currently treated as distinct and separate systems, imprisoned in their own silos. There also needs to be better alignment of welfare, economic and skills policies and strategies right across Government.

Questions remain about the Bill and its implementation, which I urge the Government to address as it continues its passage through Parliament. If the Bill is to succeed in its objectives, we must quickly develop a new culture of lifelong learning. The role of employers must be developed and clarity must be provided on how the lifelong loan entitlement will work alongside the apprenticeship levy. There is a risk that the policy will result in the take-up of loans for short courses by employees that would otherwise be funded by their employers. There is a danger that the lifelong loan entitlement becomes something that well-educated people use to add a year after their degree rather than people who have not yet got a level 3 qualification. The pathways from lower levels need strengthening with better funding and maintenance support at level 3 and below.

As I mentioned at the outset, the Bill is important and it has enormous potential, but it is only one piece of the jigsaw. Other reforms and new strategies are required if we are to deliver meaningful lifelong learning. That must take its place as part of a coherent post-16 education and skills strategy that properly aligns with wider Government policies.

We must improve careers advice so as to ensure that those who need lifelong learning the most are able to access it. Further consultation is needed on the regulation and quality of modular learning. It is important that regulatory burdens and risks do not stifle innovation and limit the delivery of short courses and modules. It is important that we create a maintenance support system that enables everyone to live properly while studying or training. This will be crucial for mature learners who often have family commitments and caring responsibilities.

Finally, the whole education and skills system must be sustainably funded. FE has been poorly funded for far too long. If we are to have a truly collaborative, streamlined and more flexible system for learners to study throughout their lives at different places, on a modular basis, this underfunding must be addressed.

In conclusion, the Government are to be commended for recognising the importance of lifelong learning in the modern world. The Bill’s ambitions and aspirations are the right ones, but they will not be delivered in a vacuum. They must be part of a wider, coherent and co-ordinated strategy. As I have outlined, there are issues that should be addressed as the Bill now moves to the other place. There are also wider implications that must be considered right across Government, and I hope that they will figure prominently in the forthcoming Barber review and the autumn statement.