Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Association of Colleges (ILA 24)

THE FUTURE OF INDIVIDUAL LEARNING ACCOUNTS

INTRODUCTION

  1.  This paper has been prepared in response to an invitation from John Healey MP, Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Adult Skills for suggestions on how to build on the initial success of Individual Learning Accounts. It

    —  Comments on some aspects of the ILA model developed so far which need to be considered in any future development; and

    —  "Offers some suggestions as to directions in which the model might evolve.

  2.  While drawing upon the experience of colleges in the implementation of the initiative to date, the paper does not seek to dwell on past operational problems. Rather the suggestions put forward seek to exploit the power of the ILA concept by developing for ILAs a central role within the framework of Government strategy for lifelong learning, providing a unifying element for the integration of a number of inter-related policy strands.

SOME ASPECTS OF THE CURRENT ILA MODEL

  3.  Considerable progress has been made in establishing ILAs as a significant feature of the post-16 learning scene, and the early achievement of the initial target of 1 million ILAs has done much to embed the ILA concept in the consciousness of learners and learning providers. However with the phasing out of the initial incentive of £150 grant, it is by no means clear that the discount incentives will be sufficient to maintain and build upon the initial success. In particular, while it would be reasonable to believe that the 80 per cent discount available for specified IT training will continue to make this component attractive, past experience with vocational tax relief gives reason to doubt that the 20 per cent discount available for other types of training will be sufficiently powerful to make ILAs the route of choice for many learners.

  4.  At the same time, development of ILAs to date has been undertaken in large measure independently of other components of Government policies towards post-16 learning: in the view of the Association there is scope for much greater integration with other policy strands. In addition, the lack of focus in the initial promotion of ILAs has almost certainly meant that the initiative has so far done rather less than might have been hoped to raise awareness of learning opportunities and the benefits of learning among groups with traditionally low participation rates. Nor does it appear that it has yet begun to draw significant additional private sector investment in learning, either from individuals or from employers.

  5.  Equally, anecdotal evidence would suggest the availability of ILAs as a universal scheme, accessible to all, with only limited attempt at targeting has meant in practice that take up of ILAs has been strong among better qualified groups, with little penetration among those with poor levels of attainment or little recent history of learning. Similarly, the lack of controls on the learning providers entitled to access ILAs in the initial phase has led to a worrying number of examples of poor quality learning provision. Although the recent measures to introduce provider agreements represents a welcome improvement, failure to ensure that learners utilising ILAs are provided with good quality learning which represents good value for money can only serve to undermine the credibility of the ILA concept.

SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE DEVELOPMENT OF ILAS

  6.  It is suggested that there is scope for development of the current ILA model by:

    —  Effective Integration of ILAs with other policy measures to create a comprehensive vehicle for the development of the Government's lifelong learning strategy;

    —  Mounting a major promotional campaign for lifelong learning with ILAs as a key component;

    —  Channeling the main components of learner support through ILAs;

    —  Targeting ILA support more effectively on key priority groups;

    —  Introducing rigorous quality assurance mechanisms to maintain the integrity of the ILA brand.

  7.  The following paragraphs offer some suggestions as to how these improvements might be achieved.

ILAs as a Comprehensive Vehicle for Lifelong Learning

  8.  To date the development of ILAs has proceeded largely independently of many other aspects of the Government's strategy for lifelong learning. The linkage with policies for widening participation, improving attainment and raising quality, across both further and higher education, has been at best indirect and has failed to exploit the potential synergies which integration with other key policies could bring. In particular, the Association believes there is scope for creating much stronger links in areas such as:

    —  embedding lifelong learning as a cultural norm;

    —  the drive to widen participation among disadvantaged groups;

    —  the establishment of a more effective system of student support;

    —  measures to raise the quality of learning provision; and

    —  the stimulation of greater private investment in adult learning.

  9.  It is suggested that if the potential synergies are to be achieved the linkages between the main policy lines must be clear and explicit. Specifically, the role of ILAs in the delivery of each of these policies should be clearly identified, and the framework redesigned to provide ILAs with the capacity to make a more effective contribution.

Promotional Campaign

  10.  Although many of the policies developed over the past few years have been extensively promoted in their own right, there has been little attempt to develop a coherent promotional strategy for the Government's approach to lifelong learning as a whole. If such a strategy is to be effective in securing the step change in public attitudes towards adult learning, it will require a unifying theme. It is suggested that the ILA concept could provide such a focus, and in doing so offer a powerful vehicle for raising awareness of, and commitment to, adult learning.

  11.  Creation of such a coherent approach to promotion would require effective co-operation between all the agencies with responsibility for development and implementation of the various policy measures. In particular, it will be important to ensure that the discharge by LSC of its statutory duty to promote learning in the areas for which it is responsible is fully integrated with the Department's own activities in promoting higher education and other areas of lifelong learning.

A Channel for Learner Support

  12.  It is suggested that realization of this key role for ILAs could be most effectively be achieved by utilizing the accounts as the principal channel for delivering learner support. Making access to at least the main components of learner support—tuition fee assistance, student loans, childcare and disability grants, some elements of access funds such as opportunity and residential bursaries—conditional upon the establishment of an ILA would ensure that the accounts rapidly became accepted as a normal feature of adult learning. The Association does not believe it would be desirable to extend the concept to include the main public funding for tuition: that would turn the ILA into a form of education voucher, the disadvantages of which are widely known.

  13.  Inclusion of support for higher education as well as for learning up to level 3 would ensure that the concept was embedded across all social groups and at all levels. It would also establish ILAs as a vehicle through which individuals would utilize loan support as well as grants, alongside the discount and incentive mechanisms currently available. Possession of an ILA could also be used to access other benefits, such as travel incentives if these become available, in much the same way as is planned for the Connexions Card.

  14.  Establishing ILAs as the key channel for learner support in this way would also encourage employers to channel their own contributions to employee learning through the accounts. However, if the ILA is to become a mechanism for unlocking greater employer investment in learning, it might be necessary to consider further tax incentives—perhaps in the form of tax credits for learning—since the current tax regime, while neutral as between direct employer investment and payment through an ILA, does not in itself offer any encouragement to increase investment.

Targeting

  15.  Although there is considerable advantage in reinforcing the image of ILAs as an essential element of adult learning for all, if the Government's objectives of widening participation and raising the standards of attainment among the least well qualified are to be achieved, some degree of targeting would seem to be essential. It is suggested that this can be readily achieved through the enhanced ILA concept outlined above, in that using the accounts as the main channel for learner support would permit resources to be concentrated on those individuals perceived to be in most need of public support. Equally, it would be possible to mount co-ordinated promotional campaigns aimed at particular groups, under an overall ILA brand.

Improved Quality Assurance

  16.  It is suggested that if the ILAs are to become a key component of Government strategy for lifelong learning it will be critical to ensure that accounts are identified as being associated with high quality learning. For this to occur, it will be essential to ensure that only learning providers which meet rigorous quality criteria can access ILA resources. To achieve this will require a new approach to registration of learning providers, and in particular the establishment of a credible quality assurance system. For providers already within the public funding system—those already in receipt of funds from bodies such as HEFCE, LSC or the Employment Service (and their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)—the quality assurance and inspection arrangements already in place should be sufficient. For other learning providers wishing to access public funding through the ILA route, it is suggested that similar requirements should be put in place. It is recognized that this will carry resource and organizational implications, and that it will have an important impact on the private training market in particular. It is probable that the simplest approach would be to bring such organisations within the scope of the relevant funding body (such as HEFCE or LSC) and their quality improvement strategies, and the most relevant quality assurance organisation (for example, ALI or QAA), and to require them to conform to the quality standards set by those bodies. This would be consistent with using ILAs as a channel for most learner support. While introduction of such requirements will almost certainly narrow the range of learning providers accessing ILAs, it is suggested that this is the minimum necessary to secure the longer-term integrity of the ILA concept.

CONCLUSIONS

  17.  In the Association's view the above suggestions would offer a basis for developing the ILA concept in a way which would help to establish it as a major feature of the adult learning scene, and a key element of Government strategy towards lifelong learning. Of necessity, this paper has done no more that sketch out initial ideas: considerable detailed work would be required to turn them into reality. The Association will of course be pleased to contribute to any further examination of these issues which the Department may wish to undertake.

Association of Colleges

September 2001


 
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