July 21, 2024

Lifelong loans: ‘let folk study what they want’

England’s Lifelong Loan Entitlement “has to be about letting people study what they want” rather than government-dictated “utilitarian” courses, while it could help overturn the “mad idea” that university must happen between ages 18 and 21, according to the outgoing head of Birkbeck, University of London.

David Latchman retired as Birkbeck vice-chancellor at the end of 2023, after 21 years leading “London’s evening university”, as the flags around its Bloomsbury campus proclaim it.

The institution, which offers students the chance to benefit from “research-led teaching” while they work, has this year marked its bicentenary: “200 years of changing lives” as another marketing strapline puts it.

Post-Covid, Birkbeck is “spending a lot of money on hyflex so people who can’t come can actually participate in the classes live”, said Professor Latchman.

He added details about what makes its offer distinctive: “Yes, you can log on from New York; yes, you can log on when the baby’s gone to sleep at one in the morning. But ultimately the core is the physical class. And it seems, post-Covid, that people still want that.”

Inspiring stories about Birkbeck students abound, such as that of Jeff Porter, a Tube driver whose train was behind one of those destroyed by suicide bombers in the 2005 London attacks and who led his passengers to safety – and who was studying a master’s at Birkbeck at the time. After leaving school at 16, Dr Porter went on to complete a PhD at Birkbeck in 2015 on post-war restitution for Jewish and German communities robbed by the Nazis – and subsequently opted to return to being a Tube driver.

That story shows that “somebody who was thrown on the scrapheap at 16 can actually get to the level of a PhD”, said Professor Latchman.

But he added that for those in such a position at the end of school, “it may not be the right thing for many of them to go [to university] at 18, when they have no idea what they are going to do”.

By contrast with many Birkbeck students, Professor Latchman had a “conventional” path – “direct-grant school, Cambridge, university academic” – and remains a professor of genetics at UCL. After his Birkbeck retirement, he will continue as deputy vice-chancellor of the University of London, leading its response to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, scheduled for introduction in 2025, which will allow students to break up loan funding for study into modules or short courses taken over the duration of their working lives. The LLE, with its aim of opening the door for far more people to study while they work, is potentially transformative for Birkbeck.

Professor Latchman stressed that while some Birkbeck students were studying courses that would help them get promoted at work, others were studying “for interest’s sake”. He added: “I’m a really great believer that this should not be utilitarian: it should not be government saying, ‘Workforce planning is we need more people in AI; whatever, let’s fund that’.”

“That’s the key to…the LLE,” he continued.

A 2022 LLE pilot, in which 102 short courses were offered across 22 institutions, resulted in just 12 applications for loans from students in three months – with Professor Latchman calling the pilot a “fiasco”.

He said: “The LLE has to be about letting people study what they want…That’s why the pilot failed. The pilot was all about very, very narrow subjects, giving one dollop to 20 different universities, none of which had a particular interest in it.”

While the Treasury is concerned about the amount of funding that could flow through the LLE, Professor Latchman is concerned by the implications of constraints on which courses people can study in the scheme.

“Then you have a really dangerous thing,” he said. “Which is that once you say for short courses, ‘We’re not funding history of art but we are funding physics’, how long before you don’t fund history of art degrees?”

But Professor Latchman said he also saw great potential in the LLE. “You need to revolutionise the system now…Can we get a revolution that is about lifelong learning that actually says, ‘When you turn 18, maybe you don’t need to do a three-year degree; maybe you need to do a [short] course’.”

“The pressure is: you must go to university,” he said. “If you are a middle-class kid who doesn’t go to university, you are [regarded as] stupid…We have a system that’s constrained into this mad idea that 18 to 21 is university.”

With the LLE “the most serious [problem] is loan aversion,” Professor Latchman added. “We know that mature people have loan aversion – and how do you get around that?”

But he continued: “We need this [the LLE] to come in. We should not be chipping away at it…[or] in the end the government will say, ‘Why are we bothering?’ This is the only game in town.”


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