Lifelong learning and apprenticeships: skills for life

5 February 2024 | By: René Koglbauer, Dean of Lifelong Learning and Professional Practice | 4 min read

A call for a longer-term, sustainable and collaborative approach to the country's skill development agenda.

Professor René Koglbauer, Dean of Lifelong Learning and Professional Practice sets out the global urgency for action, takes a deep-dive into the skills policy and calls for a longer-term sustainable and collaborative, cross-party approach to the country’s skills development agenda.

The ‘skills gap’ challenge

The phenomenon of a ‘skills gap’ challenge faced by many jurisdictions and industries across the globe has been widely reported and discussed. Headlines such as “Shortfall of 1m engineers ‘threatens UK infrastructure projects’” (Professional Engineering. 16 August 2023) have intensified once again the calls for a closer link between education and employability. In the UK, among other countries, the fallout of the recruitment crisis in some industries following the global pandemic, coupled with the Government’s ambitious net zero targets, has added to the complexity of this challenge.

With 80% of the 2030 workforce already in employment (CBI, 2020), longer-term recruitment programmes of school leavers through apprenticeships or degree programmes must be balanced with re-training and upskilling education offers for those currently in employment. Furthermore, the fourth industrial revolution and the rapid advance of digital technologies and artificial intelligence are additional ingredients in the complexity of tackling this phenomenon. Calls for collaboration and cross-disciplinary working are widely welcomed but often hindered by a multitude of factors, such as structures, underpinning systems, funding, and financial sustainability.

The resulting focus on employability as a key outcome of education has put skills-focused and competence-based education approaches in the forefront of educational policymakers’ thinking, which has been impacting schools, FE colleges and universities.

Lifelong learning and higher education reform in England

Delving into the various lifelong learning and skills-related policies and initiatives in England, one could argue – at least on paper – that a joined up and pathway-forming vocational education approach is emerging from secondary to higher education. Starting out with the controversial reform of A Level equivalent BTECs to T Levels, future talent will have the choice of continuing their vocational study at higher levels (Level 4 and 5 – equivalent to first through to final year of undergraduate study) by enrolling on to one of the new Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs), most commonly delivered by FE colleges, or on to a degree course at a higher education institution. To note here, for some degree programmes, T Level graduates may be required to undertake a foundation degree first.


The alternative vocational route for new talent would be to be employed as an apprentice and follow one of the over 690 employer-led occupational (apprenticeship) standards at Levels 2 (GCSE equivalent) through to Level 7 (Master’s equivalent) (See Figure 1 for qualification levels). Since the apprenticeship reform in 2015 (when apprenticeship standards replaced apprenticeship frameworks and higherlevel apprenticeships, including degree apprenticeships were introduced) more than 3.34m apprenticeship starts have been recorded).

In 2023/24, apprenticeship starts increased by 7% to 130,830. The data also shows a continued increase of enrolment on to degree apprenticeships. Most interestingly, though, the data shows that close to 48% of all apprenticeship starts are aged 25+, which is a strong indication that employers are utilising the Apprenticeship Levy for upskilling and/or retraining their existing workforce. (Gov.UK, 2024)

Lifelong Learning Entitlement

Re-training, upskilling and flexibility are the three key words linked to another reform to be implemented by 2025, the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE). Having received Royal Ascent in autumn 2023, the LLE sets out to align FE and higher education funding at Levels 4 - 6, by giving learners access to a tuition fee loan of £37,000, which they can utilise flexibly towards any study at these levels up to the age of 60. While it is envisaged that the majority of school leavers will utilise it for further studies immediately after passing their A Level or T Level qualifications and complete a further qualification at an FE college or a university, learners will have the opportunity to study more flexibly utilising the modular approach. Here a few examples:

Learner A, 18, completed A Levels; enrols on to three-year university degree course

Learner B, 18, completed T Level, in employment, enrols on a couple of 30-credit short courses; this learner may accumulate credits towards a degree over a longer period of time.

Learner C, 35, completed a three-year undergraduate degree; in employment; requires upskilling in a specific area and enrols on to a Level 5 30-credit short course in the chosen discipline area for upskilling purposes.

Some applaud the vision and principles underpinning this policy reform with the aim of creating lifelong learning opportunities for all (up to age 60!) and give mature learners easier access to courses for potential career changes or their own personal and professional development. Others are more sceptical regarding progression, student wellbeing and the indicated lack of demand for such a flexible offer through a funded pilot phase. However, external factors, such as the current cost-of-living crisis, may make a flexible and credit-accumulation pathway towards a degree more attractive than is currently envisaged by leaders in the field.

Looking ahead – a call for longer-term sustainability

Many of the reforms are quite infant in their existence. Therefore, frequent minor amendments – often in consultation with stakeholders – have been agreed upon and implemented. In order to future-proof skills provision as an integral part of our education offer across schools, FE colleges, universities and other private training providers, actions will need to be taken to get the longer-term commitment from all stakeholders, including:

  • reducing the overburden and complexity of regulating apprenticeships, which currently involves the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted and Office for Students
  • committing to degree apprenticeships at Level 6 and 7 for a longer-term period to secure strategic commitment from apprenticeship providers
  • incentivise employers to proactively engage with apprenticeships by employing apprentices; currently the demand for degree apprenticeship places outweighs the vacancies significantly
  • reforming Apprenticeship Levy to maximise employers’ investment into the development of future and existing talent.

Without doubt the skills and the Apprenticeship Levy will be featuring in the forthcoming manifesto statements of the various political parties. In autumn 2023, Labour set out an Apprenticeship Levy reform by introducing a more flexible Growth and Skills Levy, where 50% would have to be spent on apprenticeships but the other 50% could be invested more flexibly in other – approved – continuing professional development courses.

Final reflections

Reflecting on the various cross-party debates on lifelong learning and skills, there is an overarching agreement of its importance for the country, the economy, society, as well as the individual and their future opportunities in life. Therefore, I think a cross-party skills strategy is the only long-term solution. This will require commitment not just from political parties but from all stakeholders, including all education providers to embody true collaboration in creating a culture of lifelong learning and provide an educational experience that ensures our learners are fit for their future and the world in which they will live and work.

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Shortfall of 1m engineers ‘threatens UK infrastructure projects'  in: Professional Engineering. News article. 16 August 2023

Education for life. Funding a world-class adult education system CBI. 2020.

Apprenticeships. Academic year 2023/24. Headline facts and figures Gov.UK. 2024 (Data released 25 January 2024)


Figure 1: Guidance on qualification levels



Apprenticeship Categories

Level 1

GCSE grades 1 to 3


Level 2

GCSE grades 4 to 9

Intermediate Apprenticeship

Level 3

A Level, T Level, BTECs

Advanced Apprenticeship

Level 4

First year undergraduate, HTQ Level 4, HNCs


Higher Apprenticeship /

Degree Apprenticeship

Level 5

Second year undergraduate, HTQ Level 5, HNDs

Level 6

Undergraduate honour’s degree

Level 7

Master’s degree, postgraduate certificates/diplomas