In November, the Department for Education published further information on how the fee limits and residual entitlement will operate in practice for the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE) once it is rolled out in 2025.

Central to the Government’s plans, is the ambition that workers will be able to retrain throughout their working lives to meet the skill demands of tomorrow, allowing a more agile workforce to develop which will help address the UK’s stagnant productivity.

Although this is a laudable aim, as I have outlined elsewhere, there are still plenty of issues which must be addressed before the LLE overhauls the current student finance system. Among these, is the missed opportunity to address the minimal employer involvement in our skills system. So far, the Government framework focuses on providers and students but fails to address the role that employers – a chief beneficiary of a highly skilled workforce – will play.

Subject to an Office for Students consultation, in 2027 it is likely that the LLE will be expanded to cover modules currently funded through Advanced Learner Loans, including “non-prescribed” courses (mainly diplomas, certificates and awards taught by colleges or training providers) which vary in credit weight. Many non-prescribed qualifications are related to specific occupational skills and involve professional bodies, which would suggest they meet employer needs. Should the LLE’s remit be expanded to include these then it risks employers transferring investment of their own money into the skills system, to an expectation that workers will self-fund through the loan system. Such a move would leave employers even more firmly entrenched as skills system customers, not collaborators.

There is an appetite for coordinated investment in skills. More adults are seeking to re-enter the workforce post Covid restrictions, creating a clear demand for opportunities to retrain. This year, the number of adults taking part in learning reached its highest level since the Adult Participation in Learning Survey began in 1996, rising by 8% from 2022 to 49% of the adult population. This increase has come in spite of reduced skills investment not just by employers but the State as well. In absolute terms, Government expenditure on tertiary education has fallen from £4.7 billion to £4.5 billion last year, and despite the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy six years ago, employer investment in skills is down by 28% since 2005 to £1,530 per employee per year, half the EU average.

One in six adults – 6.7 million people – in the UK have low (Level 1) or zero qualifications. People aged 50-64 are the most likely to lack qualifications and digital skills, leaving older workers vulnerable to the encroaching role of generative artificial intelligence and with the most to gain from upskilling opportunities. At present, there is no entity that is able to coordinate the multiple dimensions required for a functional skills system. Such an entity would need to consider future need, for example links to the Government Innovation strategy, the need for inward investment and regional infrastructure as well as how to engage employers and educational institutions. Without any overarching skills strategy there is a danger that ad hoc decisions around the LLE could further undermine the role of employers is supporting workforce development.

Local Skills Improvement Plans could yet be impactful in this space but, by failing to fashion a role for providers and focusing on further education college curricula meeting local employer requirements, they have so far served as little more than a shopping list for businesses.

The Government should create a cross departmental Skills Council which oversees strategy development for tertiary education and coordinates genuine partnerships between employers, colleges and universities. More fundamentally, the dwindling level of employer investment in the skills system must be addressed. In 2024, the LLE cannot morph into another excuse for businesses to continue relying on a state benefit system for skills. Instead, an overarching framework must incentivise employers to engage in both the funding and design of employer led qualifications and to fund short skills based training courses that benefit the businesses.