A critical moment for part-time and mature higher education

Few will be surprised at the continuing decline in part-time higher education, highlighted in The power of part-time, the Universities UK review of part-time and mature higher education, which was commissioned by the government in response to falling student numbers and was published this week.

The report had been eagerly anticipated by those in the sector who appreciate the value of part-time higher study – and many have embraced its fairly broad statement of the critical importance of part-time. Its publication is undoubtedly an important moment in the campaign to revive the fortunes of part-time and higher education. But if is not followed by concerted, long-term action, underscored by the commitment of institutions and government, there is a danger that it will change little.

This is one of the problems with what is, in many ways, an excellent and valuable report – and one of the reasons it has disappointed some. Its recommendations are long on commitment but are rather short on specific policy interventions. Many, while agreeing that government, institutions and funding councils should ‘consider the needs of part-time and mature student as an intrinsic part of their thinking, not as an add-on’, will feel that the time for such injunctions has passed and that action is what is now needed. Others will be disappointed that the review did not feel able to make a bolder statement on the equivalent or lower-level (ELQ) rule, which denies funding to students looking to take a second degree and which has played a significant part in the late devastation of university continuing education. More, I fear, is needed if we are to galvanise the sort of immediate action we will need if part-time and mature learning is to have a future.

It is difficult to overstate the urgency of the situation. The review reports that the numbers of students recruited to undergraduate part-time courses in England fell by 40 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13 – equivalent to 105,000 fewer students – a dramatic drop which follows a decade of steady decline in part-time student numbers. The vast majority of part-time students are mature, most of them combining work with study and taking vocational courses. Full-time mature student numbers have also declined sharply since the increase in tuition fees in 2010. At a time when the need for a flexible, resilient workforce, capable of re-skilling throughout their adult lives, has never been clearer, this is depressing news indeed.

The report identifies a number of potential causes for the decline, including the current economic climate, pressures on employer support for further study, the changing pathways into higher education and shifts in demographics, and the effects of the 2012–13 changes to the funding system in England and associated increase in fees – a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, the report says. It also points out that information on courses and finances can be patchy and that employers and potential students are often not fully aware of the value of part-time higher study.

In response, the review recommends that part-time and mature higher education should form an intrinsic part of the plans of higher education providers, government and funding councils and calls for an ‘urgent push at all levels to help potential students and employers to understand the value of part-time higher education’. It also recommends that universities ‘take bold steps’ to meet the needs of potential part-time students and to improve the part-time experience, and calls for a boost to employer-focused part-time higher education.

This is all laudable stuff, and well worth saying. But the report stops short of saying what the government and institutions need to do to make this happen. This is a missed opportunity, I think, particularly in an area in which there is a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies. The government is looking to institutions to set out their stall more clearly in attracting part-time and mature students, while institutions would like the government to do more to incentivise and support them to engage with part-time and adult students. Despite government rhetoric about a diverse system characterised by a variety of modes of learning and types of learners, most institutions see little reason to change their focus on full-time residential degrees for school leavers. In a sense this is understandable: part-time students are harder to recruit and support, and more likely to drop out. To make a difference here will require a thoughtful, holistic approach taking in issues such as cost (both to students and institutions) and affordability, course design, credit transfer, employer engagement and attitudes to debt. And all of this must be supported and nourished by a genuine vision for a true learning society, which offers accessible, affordable opportunities for adults to learn at every stage of their lives.

I think it is important to note also that the decline in part-time and mature higher education is not only extremely bad news for the economy and for prospects of growth and the development of a knowledge economy worthy of the name, but also for democracy, social mobility, culture and active citizenship. The focus of provision should not just be on employment and economic benefit but should reflect the wider motives, interests and ambitions of adults (while giving them affordable opportunities to pursue them). The UUK report, while recognising the wider benefits to society, overwhelmingly (and, perhaps, understandably) focuses on the contribution of part-time higher education to economic growth. This is important, of course, but if we are serious about the role of universities in creating an engaged, knowledgeable and aspirational citizenry we need to ensure these are not the only kinds of opportunity available. Self-realisation should not be the sole preserve of the already privileged. The revival of university lifelong learning should be at the heart of an enhanced community engagement mission for institutions.

Reading the report sent me back to Jonathan Rose’s landmark study, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and his account of the motivations for study of continuing education students in the 1930s. A survey of WEA/Ruskin College students found them concerned both with the ‘fullest expression of the faculties of the individual’ and with ensuring ‘the maximum co-operation of the individual towards the happiness of the group of which he is a part’. One student described the object of study as:

First, to equip the student with adequate knowledge in order that he or she may make a more adequate and effective response to his or her social obligations. Secondly, to enable one to appreciate and cultivate a desire for the best in art, literature, music, etc., to more readily understand the significance of science and generally to raise the level of intelligence in order that the student may enjoy a fuller and more harmonious existence, freer from the trammels of prejudice, superstition and dogmatism.

Engaging potential part-time students needs to be about more than information and guidance, important though those things are. It needs to recognise the diverse motives and ambitions of adults, as well as taking seriously the issue of cost and the clear negative impact of the new loans system on this group of learners. The removal of the ELQ rule would be a constructive start.

As I said at the outset, the UUK report represents an important moment in the campaign for part-time higher education. It should help give this critical issue the attention it deserves. But it remains to be seen whether it will mark a sea change in attitude and approach or become yet another landmark on the long road of decline. My fear is that we are still some way from genuinely integrating part-time and mature higher education into the mission of institutions, and that the kind of commitment needed to make up the ground already lost will be very difficult to secure.

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