Providing choice and flexibility for a lifetime: Higher Education Short Course Trial Challenge Competition

Today we are publishing detailed guidance which invites providers to bid for funding to develop short courses that offer prospective students greater choice in how they choose to study, with more flexible options to develop their skills.

Student standing on stairs of university with others moving around her

As part of the government’s proposals to encourage lifelong learning, and in preparation for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), DfE has asked the OfS to launch a Challenge Competition that will distribute £2 million of funding for the development of higher education short courses. 

This competition is a key part of the government’s approach to delivering the LLE. The trial aims to test how innovations in the supply of short courses could meet demand from students and employers, and test a new model of student finance to support this. Learning from this pilot will help the government further develop its LLE policy, so this presents a unique opportunity for universities and colleges to develop innovative ways to support students to study throughout their lives. It will also help us at the OfS to understand how our regulatory approaches may need to adapt to these new forms of provision. 

Why and why now?

We know that fewer people have been accessing higher education later in life during the last decade and that the poor availability of flexible learning is a contributor to this. The OfS’s work on adult learners, as well as many other research reports, have shown how this creates barriers for people in work or with caring responsibilities, and for employers who want to invest in their staff. 

The competition guidance, published today, invites providers to bid for funding to develop more flexible, short, standalone courses. These courses will enable students to take individual courses or build up credit towards a full qualification over time. The idea is that this will break the barrier of having to commit to a full-time three-year course. For example, if someone needs a specific set of skills to help them advance in their career, they can just take one or two relevant short courses. People with caring responsibilities can take multiple courses over time and build to a full qualification.  

We know also that there are skills gaps in some areas of the economy and that, as businesses and public services recover from the pandemic, there will be increasing demand for the highest levels of knowledge and skills. That is why a big focus of the competition will be driven by employer skills needs as well as reskilling and retraining those in work. Providers are asked to demonstrate that courses are developed with employer input, so that students undertaking them can be confident employers will value the qualification too. Reflecting government priorities, we are specifically interested in courses that address skills needs in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), education, digital innovation, healthcare, and skills needed to achieve net zero carbon emission goals.

The trial is also an opportunity to test how student finance will work for short courses. Students studying on the funded short courses may be able to access student loans. We hope this will encourage uptake and make it easier for people thinking about higher education to access the finance they need to support their studies.

Working with DfE

The LLE is high on the government’s agenda and we have worked closely with DfE so that we can ensure the findings influence the future approach to the LLE.

The timing of the competition has been shaped to enable findings to deliver this. We have taken a two-stage approach to launching this competition, with high level guidance published and a webinar with DfE and the Student Loans Company held in July, enabling providers to begin planning their bids. Since then we have been working closely to develop full bidding guidance so that we can be confident that the bids will deliver the kind of courses that DfE envisions. 

What we are looking for

Short courses are a new way of delivering choice for students and value for employers, so the bids need to reflect this. The full bidding criteria is published in the bidding guidance, but some of the key points we will be looking for include bids that:

  • Address local or national employer skills needs and have employers as partners in the development and delivery of the courses
  • Propose innovative and flexible ways to deliver courses so that they are attractive to as many student groups as possible
  • Propose courses that allow students to upskill or retrain while also providing progression routes to full qualifications.

The deadline for bid submissions is 28 September 2021. While this is shorter than the usual timeline for challenge competitions, we hope that having taken a two-stage approach to the guidance has enabled providers to begin discussions about possible proposals.

Learning and next steps

This is an exciting time for higher education. The learning from this trial has the potential to influence the most radical reforms to student finance for a decade, re-shaping pathways through education beyond school and throughout students’ lifetimes.

That is why evaluation of the trial is extremely important. We will set expectations for providers taking part in this trial to evaluate their own projects and we are working with DfE to put in place evaluation arrangements for the programme as a whole. This will provide the OfS, government, universities and colleges, and employers with rich data about the kinds of students and employers who want short courses, how providers deliver them and how access to student finance works for short courses.   


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Published 25 August 2021

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