An important element of the Office for Students’ (OfS’s) work around equality of opportunity is ensuring that there are flexible and diverse pathways into higher education.
It is important for individual universities and colleges, and the wider sector, to consider ways to widen the pool of people experiencing higher education.
One way to do that is through higher education short courses, which are designed to enable flexible learning and to help students develop skills needed by employers and the economy.
Today, the OfS has published the findings of an independent evaluation of a trial which has piloted access to student finance for these courses. The pilot, which is a collaboration between the OfS and the Department for Education, launched in August 2021 and continues until August 2025.
To launch the trial, the OfS allocated £2 million of funding across 22 higher education providers from all over the country via a Challenge Competition to develop and adapt components of existing courses at Levels 4 to 6 into short courses. This funding sought to assess the demand from students to access short-term provision and help to build understanding about short course participation more generally, ahead of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement planned for 2025 onwards.
Findings from the pilot show that:
- The universities and colleges funded for this work developed nearly 100 courses.
- Those students who did enrol on the courses reported positive experiences, and there was strong engagement from employers throughout the process.
- However, there was low take-up of the courses overall, with many courses not launched due to lack of demand. As result there was low take-up of the related student loan.
- The report suggests this lack of demand was caused, in part, by: a lack of time to promote and market the courses; lack of understanding of which prospective students to market the courses to; and a lack of understanding about the content and benefits of short courses.
While it is disappointing that enrolments were lower than expected, it is important to emphasise the novel nature of this work and that universities and colleges worked swiftly to develop innovative new courses at speed and with limited resources. That is to be commended, and the OfS is grateful to all of those universities and colleges that worked to develop courses. Their commitment to this way of working will help the whole sector to consider how and whether short courses can play a part in their offer to prospective students. The courses that they have developed are important in and of themselves – offering students the opportunity to upskill and retrain.
The trial also saw many examples of collaborative working in the development and delivery of the courses. Universities and colleges worked with a range of partners to design the courses, including local and national businesses, local authorities and NHS trusts. Even where these courses have not got off the ground, we hope that universities and colleges will consider how they can carry forward this collaborative way of working as they developed future courses.
The evaluation provides a range of recommendations for the OfS, which we will carefully consider in how we run future funding calls of this kind. There was useful feedback about the timing and design of this type of funding competition and the practicalities for universities and colleges in the delivery of funding and the design of courses.
There are also recommendations for the sector as a whole, as well as individual universities and colleges. These include the importance of raising awareness around short courses, as well as being prepared to experiment with course design and delivery.
Providing alternative routes into higher education is tricky work. But it is important. And, as the trial progresses, the OfS will continue to support those universities and colleges offering short courses as one option for students to further develop their skills.