Tag Archives: mature students

Lifelong learning – an idea whose time has finally come?

Political interest in adult education is experiencing one of its periodic spikes. Time will tell whether the interest is sustained or whether, as has so often been the case, it amounts to little more than a rhetorical flourish, a knowing half-nod to the changing zeitgeist rather than an attempt to capture it. Brexit, of course, is the unknown quantity with the potential to change the game and make lifelong learning a genuinely pivotal component of mainstream political thinking in the UK. A dawning (and, frankly, rather belated) appreciation of its far-reaching implications is the likely driver of this latest shift in perception.

The government’s green paper on the development of a new industrial strategy makes much of the role of adult skills in post-Brexit economic renewal and demonstrates a rare awareness of the need to ensure better articulation between the demand for skills and their supply. This has been a niggling issue with UK skills policy for decades, with successive skills strategies seemingly concocted in a sealed civil service laboratory, some distance from the stubborn and not always particularly agreeable realities of British economic life. The result, too often, was training for training’s sake and a pretty shoddy return on public investment. Fortunately for the dozens of journeyman politicians who have passed through this territory, tolerance of failure in this neglected area of policy has tended to be high. Only a handful – John Hayes and Vince Cable notable among them – have offered any vision or sense of a wider role for FE and skills, and that in spite of a largely uncomprehending civil service (one short-sighted civil servant famously suggested to Cable that all public funding for FE be withdrawn to meet the department’s budget reduction target).

The new industrial strategy is an opportunity to change all this. It includes skills as one of 10 ‘pillars’ which will drive growth and raise productivity. The green paper highlights a number of ‘key issues’ concerning skills which, it says, we need, as a country, to address. These are: poor levels of basic skills, particularly among younger adults; a shortage of high-skilled technicians below graduate level; skills shortages in sectors that depend on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); skills shortages specific to certain sectors, which force some employers to look overseas to fill certain vacancies; the poor quality of careers advice; and ‘the accelerating pace of technological change’ which ‘means there is a growing challenge with lifelong learning: supporting people to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives’. People, the green paper continues, are ‘living and working longer’ at the same time as ‘training across working life is going down’, particularly among older workers and low to medium-skilled groups (those, it notes, whose jobs are most likely to be replaced by technology in the next two decades).

To meet these challenges, the green paper proposes a number of actions to improve basic skills (including by reviewing current policy and supporting further education colleges in becoming ‘centres of excellence’ in maths and English), build a new system of technical education (with clearer routes, better teaching and institutes of technology in every region), boost STEM skills, and raise skills levels in other poor-performing areas. It also undertakes to publish a ‘comprehensive careers strategy’ and to ‘explore ambitious new approaches to encouraging lifelong learning, which could include assessing changes to the costs people face to make them less daunting; improving outreach to people where industries are changing; and providing better information’.

There are some good ideas here, as well as some welcome notes of realism. The government’s willingness to review the effectiveness of current policy on lifelong learning and skills is encouraging and should act as a prompt to membership and advocacy groups to make their strongest case. However, we should not allow ministers to play down the scale of the task or to obscure the role played by government policy in creating the problems the green paper describes. Putting skills at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy will require more than a review of policy effectiveness and a willingness to embrace new approaches. It will mean the effective reversal of decades of political neglect and under-funding of adult education, with substantial investment to restore the huge gaps in our lifelong learning infrastructure that have emerged as a result of austerity politics (a catastrophic and costly failure which is being quietly swept under the carpet – not unlike the equally calamitous political career of its chief architect, David Cameron). The latest figures in both further education and higher education confirm the damage done.

In further education, there is some good news for the government, in that it is on target to meet its target of three million new apprenticeship starts by the end of this parliament (with almost 900,000 new apprenticeships in 2015-16). However, the latest data also show that participation in learning other than apprenticeships in England is in sharp decline. There are 800,000 fewer adults in FE (excluding apprenticeships) than there were in 2011-12, with some 300,000 fewer adults on English or maths courses. The proportion of unemployed adults taking part in learning had also fallen sharply. This trend in participation is the direct result of cuts to funding for adult skills, with the government, in 2015 alone, cutting as much as 24 per cent from the adult further education budget. At the same time, funding for ESOL provision has been savagely cut – by 60 per cent since 2009 – again, denying opportunities to learn to adults who are desperate to do so. As if this were not bad enough, the sector has been given little chance to adapt to straitened circumstances, with funding cuts accompanied by near constant reform, experimentation and ministerial churn. There is limited policy memory in further education and little scope for leaders, struggling to adapt to curriculum and funding changes while meeting the requirements of an overbearing accountability system, to think about how to respond creatively to the challenges they face.

In higher education in England, the numbers are just as dramatic, and the challenge equally stark. The latest figures confirm the ongoing decline in part-time higher education. According to a House of Commons Library Briefing, total part-time entrants to HE have fallen by 45 per cent since 2009-10, with mature learners combining study with work forming the vast majority. This is the result, principally, of the introduction of loans and the rise in tuition fees. New data on student nursing enrolments confirm the lack of enthusiasm for loans (or debt) among older learners, with applications falling by 23 per cent (29 per cent for those aged over 21) since grants were converted into loans to support the provision of more places. Moreover, applications to full-time undergraduate courses by over-25s fell by 18 per cent in the last year, confirming a general trend of dwindling participation in HE among adults. Overall, the higher education system is becoming less diverse, less accessible to older adults and less relevant to the challenges of modern society. All of this, it should be added, has been an entirely predictable result of the policies adopted by the government.

These are all trends which must be not only halted but thrown decisively into reverse if the government is to achieve its ambitions and lifelong learning is really to help deliver the step change in growth and productivity the green paper sets out as its objective. A cohesive industrial strategy, with an ‘ambitious new approach to encouraging lifelong learning’ at its heart, is a big step in the right direction. But it will require a major shift in culture to deliver it, with ministers and civil servants looking beyond schools and elite universities, recognising that education is for adults too, and making a long-term commitment to supporting it. As Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, has argued this week, a national strategy for lifelong learning would not be a bad place to start.

 

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Adult education must rediscover its radical roots

Adult education has changed dramatically over the two decades I have worked in it. Increased levels of policy attention, beginning with the wonderfully optimistic note struck by Helena Kennedy’s 1997 Learning Works report and David Blunkett’s 1998 green paper, The Learning Age, and for a short while attended also by increased funding and some bright ideas for implementation, have not led us to the promised land of wider participation and political acknowledgement of the wider purposes of education. Instead, like the train Woody Allen finds himself on at the start of Stardust Memories, they have brought us to a vast scrap yard of thwarted and abandoned ambitions in which only courses offering basic or vocational skills, mostly to younger adults, remain pristine, carefully maintained by a succession of journeyman ministers indifferent to the wider value of education. If things continue as they are – and there is no reason to suppose they will not, given the feebleness of the opposition – we will soon reach the point where the aspirations of ‘lifelong learning’ live on only in the dismal and increasingly empty rhetoric of politicians.

The current situation is, of course, in large part the result of cuts in funding, which began under Labour, and have been remorselessly deepened by the current Conservative government and its Conservative-led predecessor. The sharks of austerity have cut back on great swathes of provision, savaged the public library service, hollowed out local democracy, and attacked vital public institutions, such as the BBC, making short-term savings but creating an impoverished legacy for succeeding generations. In further education, where the majority of adults in education learn, the adult skills budget was reduced by 35 per cent between 2009 and 2015. In 2015-16 alone, the government slashed an unprecedented 24 per cent from the budget. As a result of these cuts, there are more than one million fewer adults learning in further education than there were in 2010, with the Association of Colleges estimating that 190,000 adult learning places would disappear in 2015-16 alone. The characteristically measured AoC was moved to predict that, on the current course, adult further education would be a thing of the past by 2020. What a terrible legacy for a government which believes improving UK productivity to be the challenge of our time!

While the sector has been granted some respite from the grind of year-on-year funding cuts, the post-16 area review process is likely to result in still less choice for adult learners and, for providers, a considerable distraction from what should be their core business: teaching and learning. It remains to be seen what impact the devolution of the adult skills budget (along with the absorption of the previously ring-fenced community learning budget) will have, but, with local resources tight, there is clearly a danger that learners whose employability needs cannot be addressed straightforwardly through a narrow focus on training for employment will again lose out, as might providers in the third sector, whose role is less well understood and who are largely absent from the area review process. Skills devolution represents a huge challenge to voluntary sector providers, who play a crucial role in getting adults who lack the confidence or motivation to engage with formal learning to re-engage through less formal routes, but whose voice tends to be drowned out by the bigger players.

In higher education, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) this month reported that the number of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are adults combining work and study, has fallen by 60 per cent over the past decade. This represents a dreadful act of vandalism about which even the specialist education press has been remarkably quiet. The overall number of mature students in HE has also fallen substantially, by 50 per cent over the same period, according to the report, with universities struggling to tackle the collapse in mature and part-time student numbers. And while progress has been made in attracting students from less advantaged backgrounds, the report found that universities in the elite Russell Group were failing to make adequate progress on access and progression. At the universities with the highest entrance requirements, said OFFA director Les Ebdon, ‘the participation gap between the most and least advantaged remains large and wholly unacceptable’.

The growing lack of diversity, in terms of student age and background, as well as mode of study, in elite institutions is a major concern, at least for those who cling to the old-fashioned belief that higher education should promote social mobility and challenge disadvantage rather than preserve patterns of privilege. We won’t achieve this with a one-size-fits-all system. Ensuring a more diverse, flexible and widely accessible sector is critical to efforts to widen participation. More than a third of the students entering HE last year who count towards widening participation targets were mature students. As Professor Ebdon noted in his report, ‘In order to strengthen the economy and ensure HE truly is open to everyone with the talent to benefit, urgent action must be taken to reverse the long-term decline in part-time and mature students.’ Thus far, we have seen little.

The growing prominence of adult education in policy debate over the past two decades is perhaps unsurprising, given its potential role – and proven benefits – in promoting economic productivity and reducing unemployment, improving health and wellbeing, and fostering social cohesion and active citizenship. Yet the curiosity of politicians has not resulted in increased investment, a more coherent approach to the education of adults or a more stable sector with a clearer sense of its wider role. Just the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. I fear that in its willingness to adapt, to support and implement government plans and take them at face value, and to talk the language of ministers (albeit, often, through gritted teeth), the sector may, inadvertently, have contributed to its own decline.

As budgets have shrunk, so too has the focus of education policy, to the point where only provision related to employment skills and economic improvement is seen to matter and the education of older adults, in the past the driver of progressive reform across the system, has been neglected in favour of those at or near the start of their career journey. The focus of the sector has, in some ways understandably, followed the funding, resulting in the further marginalization of the wider benefits of learning in public discourse. While the case for genuinely lifelong and lifewide learning continues to be made in some quarters, the calls often seem a little hollow, an afterthought thrown out to placate supporters rather than to influence ministers. This is perhaps because, in the current climate, such calls are unlikely to get much of a hearing and no-one, in a competitive market for contracts, wants to be on the wrong side of the argument when policy is made. For the first time in my two decades working in the sector, adult education lacks a clear, distinct and dedicated voice in its corner.

It seems to me that adult education now has two choices. It can shuffle off quietly into history, acknowledging that its time has passed, or it can look back to its own history as a social movement to rediscover a sense of purpose and redefine a role for itself. I hope it chooses the latter route. If it is to survive in any meaningful form as a movement, adult education must reinvent itself as something more than a vehicle by which adults can become more employable or move on at work. Important though these things are, they are not everything. Increasing equality of opportunity, promoting active, critical citizenship, making people happier, healthier and more fulfilled, making society more socially just, cohesive and democratic; all these things matter too. Adult education should be about the development of the full range of capabilities necessary for human beings both to flourish in modern society and to help shape it. There are still many excellent examples of this sort of practice, in the WEA, the third sector, local authorities, unions and employers, though all face challenges. There remains huge potential across the sector that should be better utilized and better invested in. It should be part of a coherent system of post-16 education, working collaboratively with the rest of the sector rather than scrambling about, competing with potential partners for a diminishing pot of cash. But I don’t think that will happen if we continue to adapt our language and thinking to the latest political wheeze.

Instead, we should be thinking about how we can rebuild adult education as a social movement aimed at giving people and communities the most radical thing any teacher can give their student: the ability to think for themselves, to be critical and to play a full part in society, as a citizen, a parent, a partner, a member of a community, and not just as an employee. Adult education can either continue to dwindle as part of a system in which it has, at best, a restricted place, or it can play a part in creating something better, that can truly address the needs of the present and future. Adult education needs its own distinct, uncompromising mission, grounded in its social purpose, community education roots. It must continue to be about working with those who are most disadvantaged and disenfranchised, not just to give them a leg up into the labour market but, in Freire’s words, to help them ‘deal critically and creatively with reality’ and to ‘participate in the transformation of their world’. Changing calcified patterns of privilege and opportunities skewed in favour of the youngest and richest in society demands nothing less. There are major challenges ahead and adult education will have a huge role to play, if we are to address them adequately. When that truth is, finally, widely acknowledged, we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have kept the flame of this work alive, in spite of it all.

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The crisis in adult education

It won’t grab many headlines, even in the specialist education press, but there is a growing crisis in adult participation in education and training, with stark implications both for our economy and our democracy. If the trend continues it will soon be necessary to reinvent from scratch a part of the education system which has taken over a century to build up.

The government yesterday released its latest figures on adult participation in further education and apprenticeship training – and the news, predictably enough, was bad. They revealed an 11 per cent fall in adult participation in state-funded learning overall between 2012-13 and 2013-14, a nine per cent drop at Level 2 (GCSE or equivalent), and an 18 per cent decrease at Level 3 (A-level or equivalent), the point at which qualifications begin to make a significant difference in terms of future earnings and life chances (and lifting people out of the low-pay trap). The numbers are even starker for older adults. There were 27 per cent fewer adults aged 25 and over in Level 3 provision and 34 per cent fewer in Level 4 provision (equivalent to Certificates of Higher Education). In addition, the sector saw a nine per cent drop in adults (19-plus) on government-supported maths and English courses.

This follows a similarly dramatic decline in mature participation in higher education in the UK, and particularly in England, following the introduction of the coalition’s HE reforms, which in effect trebled the cost of higher study and replaced grant funding with financing through loans. The extension of loans to some part-time students was hailed as a step forward in terms of levelling the playing field between full-time and part-time, but a combination of increased fees, debt aversion among older adults, and a tough economic climate (unemployment, low pay, rising costs of living, and a squeeze on employer training budgets) has seen numbers plummet. There was a 46 per cent drop in part-time undergraduate entrants – the vast majority of whom are mature students attempting to develop new skills or improve existing ones while juggling family, work and other commitments – between 2010-11 and 2013-14, with full-time mature student recruitment also failing to keep up with enrolments among younger students (which have remained stable).

As I’ve argued before, part-time mature study is one of the big unsung success stories of UK higher education – the outcome of much toil and inspiration, often against the grain of public policy. It had been in decline for a number of years before the government introduced the latest fees and funding reforms, in large part due to the Labour government’s notorious ELQ rule, which withdrew state support for students studying for a qualification at a level lower than or equivalent to one they already possessed, and represented the final straw for many university lifelong learning departments. While the coalition has relaxed the policy for subjects adjudged economically valuable (STEM subjects), it still excludes a large majority of part-timers from access to loans. These students are still obliged to pay the significantly inflated part-time fees upfront. And even for those students who can access loans the increase in fees makes higher education an altogether riskier and less attractive proposition. Little wonder than that we have seen such a huge collapse in numbers among this group of students.

There are lessons to be learned from this but it is clear the government has not learned them. Despite repeated warnings from within further education the coalition opted to pursue the same high-risk strategy in a sector which had already seen a steady decline in adult participation, as well as a pronounced shift in support to courses with narrow basic skills or employability outcomes. From 2013–14, funding was withdrawn for a range of courses for over-24s and replaced with a system of government-backed loans for learners aged 24 and over undertaking qualifications at Level 3 or higher. We have begun to see the impact of this intervention. In 2012–13, more than 400,000 people aged 24-plus took courses at Levels 3 and 4. Figures for 2013–14, show that only 57,000 students aged 24-plus took up loans at this level. Subsequent figures show that only 43,830 applications for the loans were made between April 2014 and September 2014. This suggests both that there has been a very substantial drop in participation among older adults at this level and that recruitment is showing no signs of recovery. Worryingly, the government is already consulting on expanding the loan scheme. The latest participation figures should make ministers think again – and hard.

Budgetary pressure on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has, of course, been enormous, and, despite the best efforts of secretary of state Vince Cable to defend the sector, the cuts have been eye-wateringly deep. While new money was found for apprenticeships, the government’s February 2014 skills funding statement included a 19 per cent cut to the adult skills budget by 2015–16. This meant an overall fall in adult skills funding from £2.8 billion in 2010–2012 to £2 billion in 2015–16 (before inflation is taken into account). The budgets for offender learning and community learning, while unchanged, have remained static for many years, meaning their real-term levels are much reduced. Meanwhile, the Department for Education reduced spending on 16 to 18-year-olds from £7.7 billion in 2009–10 to £7 billion in 2013–14, with a swingeing 17.5 per cent cut to the funding rate for 18 year olds from September this year. Perversely, as Vince Cable told a fringe meeting at this year’s Liberal Democrat party conference, these outcomes represent something of a ‘result’ for the sector. In 2010, he told delegates, he had personally blocked a move to withdraw all state funding from further education (a step, civil servants assured him, ‘nobody will really notice’).

With direct state funding being consistently withdrawn from core areas of adult learning and skills, many providers will be looking ahead to next week’s autumn statement (due on 3 December) with apprehension. Coping with year-on-year cuts and instability has become a day-to-day concern of managers and leaders in the FE sector. As Vince Cable’s anecdote suggests, further education continues to be little understood in the corridors of Whitehall – not surprising given the depressingly narrow social make-up of our senior politicians and civil servants. Few will have experienced further education or have any understanding of the critical importance of second chances to so many in our society. Yet it should be obvious, even to those with limited understanding of the sector, that the provision of opportunities for adults to continue learning throughout their lives is of immense value – a necessity rather than a nice-to-have. A cursory look at the challenges we face as a society should suffice to demonstrate that.

To begin with, the UK faces a major skills challenge – one complicated and made more acute by the undeniable but equally largely unacknowledged reality of demographic change. According to the OECD, England’s young people are among the worst in the developed world in terms of literacy and numeracy – with England the only one in which the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest adults. The OECD’s 2013 skills survey found that around 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland, 24.1 per cent of the population, had such basic levels of numeracy that they can manage only one-step tasks in arithmetic, sorting numbers of reading graphs. This compares to an average of 19 per cent of adults with such basic numeracy levels across the developed world. The OECD warned that the ‘talent pool of skilled adults’ in England was likely to shrink relative to other countries and called for more ‘second chance’ opportunities for low-skilled adults to learn.  This is particularly troubling in the context of an ageing society in which a high proportion of the jobs of the future will be taken by the workforce of today. Some 13.5 million vacancies are expected over the next 10 years, with only seven million new labour market entrants to fill them.

At the same time, the UK has a significant problem with productivity, linked to low pay and low skills. Productivity is 30 per cent higher in France, Germany and the USA than in the UK and is four per cent lower here than it was in the first quarter of 2008, its pre-recession peak. A recent report from Labour think-tank the Smith Institute found that countries with better productivity records ‘have more high-skilled employment and less unskilled employment’, citing research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which shows that a third of UK workers are overqualified for their job. Unsurprisingly, given the economy’s bias towards low-skilled jobs, low pay is an acute problem in the UK (as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted this week). Some five million people are paid below the living wage. And, for the first time, the majority of people in poverty in the UK live in households in which at least one adult is working. Employment is on the up, but most new jobs are low-paid and insecure, with outsourcing and zero-hours contracts on the rise. Wages are falling in real terms and 1.3 million people are working part-time because they cannot find full-time work.

Addressing the problem of low pay demands not just more jobs, but better jobs, with skills development at their core. There is growing recognition of the importance of skills to this agenda, and of the need to develop a strategy for skills linked to employment and economic policy. This was borne out in this week’s report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, supported by the CBI and the TUC, which called for radical change to the skills system. Yet as the latest drop in adult participation in FE shows, government reforms are making this change harder to achieve and more remote. The prospects for a high-productivity, high-performance economy, in which adults have opportunities to retrain, upskill or change career at different points in their lives, look bleak indeed. At the same time, the vision articulated in the early days of the last government, of a learning society in which education for citizenship, social cohesion, and personal development and fulfillment was valued alongside education to find and get on at work, has receded so far that it barely registers in the collective memory of a sector battered by continual cuts and bewildered by near-constant reform. As Vince Cable has hinted, unless we find ways of increasing the resources flowing into further and higher education, more and deeper cuts are inevitable, making inclusive, sustainable growth and the development of a better, happier, more resilient, engaged and cohesive society, increasingly unlikely.

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1963 and all that: What Robbins thought about mature students

When Lionel Robbins published the report of his committee on higher education in the United Kingdom in October 1963, higher education in the UK was an elite system, run by and for a small proportion (less than five per cent, predominantly male) of the population, many of whom were fiercely resistant to the thought that expansion might be either feasible or desirable, for reasons which appear now to amount to little more than a combination of class spite, snobbery and chauvinism.

While that was already beginning to change, thanks to a range of social and economic pressures that were slowly teasing open the doors of the academy (there were 31 universities at time of publication, including seven which had been founded within the previous five years), the Robbins report provided a compelling rationale for the rapid expansion of the system, arguing that higher education courses ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’ (the ‘Robbins principle’). Its main recommendations, including the proposal that ‘colleges of advanced technology’ be awarded university status, were accepted by the Conservative government of the day within 24 hours of publication and the further expansion of the university system began almost immediately.

As Lord Moser, one of the few surviving members of Lord Robbins’ team, recalls, the report ‘changed the whole tone of public discussion on higher education’. Critically, it demolished the contention that there was a strictly limited ‘pool of ability’ at the level of higher study, arguing instead that there was a large pool of untapped talent which the country could not afford to ignore. Robbins recognised that this was an economic issue, of course, but his view of the purposes and potential benefits of higher education was much broader than that. He set out four objectives for a ‘properly balanced system’: ‘instruction in skills’; the promotion of ‘the general powers of the mind’ so as to produce ‘not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women’; to maintain research in balance with teaching so that teaching is not separate from ‘the search for truth’; and to transmit ‘a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The return on education, he argued, was ‘not something that can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. Higher education was an important public good which should be supported largely through the public purse.

Robbins also recognised the importance of ‘second chance’ education and saw that the prevailing model of full-time residential education would not suit everyone. He urged that greater provision be made for mature students, recommending the ‘rapid development’ of courses for adults, and encouraging universities to admit ‘non-standard’ students. Higher education, the report said, ‘is not a once-for-all process. As the pace of discovery quickens it will become increasingly important for practitioners in many fields to take courses at intervals to bring them up to date … there are far too few students taking refresher courses and courses of further training’. It was particularly important, it continued, that such courses were made available for women returning to work after raising children and that these women were financially supported in their studies. He appreciated that full-time study would not necessarily be the right mode for delivery for this group.

The report also gave recognition to the important role of liberal adult education in giving students without advanced qualifications an opportunity to engage in higher study. It called for the further development of full-time courses for adults in residential colleges, such as Coleg Harlech and Ruskin College, and recommended that ‘consideration should be given to assisting them in the immediate future by capital grants and also by enabling suitable entrants to obtain adequate financial support for their studies’. Highlighting the activities of extra-mural departments, the Workers’ Educational Association and local authorities in providing adult education, the report noted that demand existed ‘on a large scale’ and that there was ‘clearly much scope for further development, in conjunction with the television services, for example, and other new media of communication. We hope that the universities and their partners will cooperate in this task. If this country is to maintain its proud record [in contributing to ‘the general education of the community’], further support for this kind of study will be needed in the future’.

Robbins didn’t see mature study merely as a nice-to-have but, rather, as an essential part of a university system within which everyone with the ability to study has the opportunity to do so. It is also clear that Robbins is not arguing for new types of institution to cater for these ‘non-standard’ students. The needs of the future, the report says, ‘should be met by developing present types of institution’ in such a way that ‘irrational distinctions’ and ‘rigid barriers between institutions’ are not perpetuated. While ‘it is inevitable that some institutions will be more eminent than others’, it says, ‘[t]here should be no freezing of institutions into established hierarchies; on the contrary there should be recognition and encouragement of excellence wherever it exists and wherever it appears’. Robbins’ vision allows for difference in function, where difference rests on ‘excellence in the discharge of functions’, but not for rigid differences in status. Equally, he did not look to different kinds of institution to cater for different kinds of student but, rather, expected that, as the system expanded, mature and other ‘non-standard’ students would become part of the institutional life of every university.

So, what has been the long-term impact of the Robbins report on widening participation, particularly for mature students? The Robbins principle that higher education should be available to all who are qualified and wish to study has underpinned developments in widening participation and lifelong learning, including the expansion of higher education opportunities to students who do not fit the traditional profile of 18 or 19 year old school leavers. There has been a huge expansion in total student numbers. There are now around 2.5 million students in the UK compared to a quarter of a million when Robbins published his report. By 2009 mature students (those aged 21 or over) represented almost a third of the first-year undergraduate population. At the same time there was a comparable growth in the numbers of part-time students, the vast majority of whom are classed as mature. Robbins was a catalyst for much of this change.

Yet, in some respects, I suspect the nature of the change would have disappointed Robbins and his committee. Although most institutions now welcome mature and part-time students it is clear that they are more welcome in some than in others. Much of the growth in numbers has been thanks to ‘new’ universities, including the former polytechnics whose foundation, in the mid-sixties, introduced into the system the sort of binary division Robbins argued against. The division survived the merging of polytechnics into the university sector in 1992 (we now have ‘pre-’ and ‘post-92’ institutions). Although these institutions have done much of the heavy lifting in terms of widening participation and opening up opportunities, for mature and part-time students in particular, there remains, in the eyes of the media, at least, and perhaps the public too, an impression that these institutions offer second-class higher education. At the same time, the innovation shown in these institutions has obscured the fact that many ‘elite’ institutions have remained stubbornly resistant to change, with a corresponding failure to widen participation to the extent of newer institutions, in which mature students (and other under-represented groups) have remained concentrated. For many of these older institutions more has not necessarily meant different, and they remain more or less rooted in the notion of universities as residential finishing schools for already privileged youngsters.

After 50 years, Robbins’ vision remains compelling. Universities minister David Willetts has made much of the continuity between the Robbins report and his own government’s vision for higher education. Certainly, the loans system devised and introduced by the coalition makes serious efforts to ensure that higher education remains accessible to all who have the talent, irrespective of ability to pay, despite the huge escalation in fees. The extension of loans to part-time students for the first time would also have pleased Robbins, particularly given his concern about women’s access to higher education. However, while there is some continuity, there are also large differences, which are more fundamental. Critically, Robbins thought very differently about the purposes and benefits of higher education. The coalition view of the benefits of university has narrowed beyond recognition to a truly grim utilitarian calculation based on individual earnings. Robbins, on the other hand, takes a much broader view, acknowledging the role of universities in creating rounded, cultivated individuals capable of promoting ‘common standards of citizenship’.

Mr Willetts notes that the Robbins committee considered the introduction of loans and that, in later life, Robbins came to regret the decision not to do so. This suggests common ground but, again, the differences are profound, and instructive. While the committee considered loans it also raised concerns that fear of debt would be a significant disincentive to students from non-traditional groups. And while Robbins may have come to think differently about loans in some respects, it is clear that he was never entertaining the possibility of loans to cover the full cost of a degree. This is because Robbins explicitly rejects the idea that the benefits of education ‘can be estimated completely in terms of the return to individuals and of differential earnings’. The wider benefits to society are of much greater importance; a recognition that underpins Robbins’ notion of higher education as an important public good, deserving of public support. He saw that the whole of society benefits from an educated citizenry capable not only of contributing to the economy but of playing a full part in civic life. It was likely that the ‘social advantages’ of investing in education greatly out-weighed the commercial ones, he argued.

A difference in approach is reflected also in the dramatic decline in part-time and mature student numbers – something which would have greatly dismayed Robbins who was acutely aware of the importance of this sort of provision both to the economy and to efforts to widen participation (particularly to women seeking to return to education after having children). Full-time mature student applications have fallen by more than 18,000 (a 14 per cent decline) since the trebling of tuition fees and the introduction of the new loans system. At the same time, part-time student numbers have collapsed, by 40 per cent, according to HEFCE figures. These shocking numbers would, I think, have appalled Robbins, but they may not have surprised him. In the section of his report on adult education, he highlights the need for ‘adequate financial support’ for mature students. Later, in considering the possible impact of a system of loans, he recognises that fear of debt can produce ‘undesirable disincentive effects’. He also observes that any drop in recruitment to higher education by those with the talent for it (but not the resources to fund it) is not only a private loss to the individual but a ‘social loss’.

It is clear, though we seem curiously reluctant to say so, that higher fees are having a significant negative impact on the recruitment of mature students, particularly those who would prefer to study part-time. There is a strong case, I think, bearing in mind the important public and economic good part-time study represents, for government to provide some sort of subsidy to enable institutions to lower costs for part-time courses, which are typically more expensive and time-consuming to run. Getting rid of the ‘ELQ rule’, which denies access to loans to students studying for a second degree (and played a big part in decimating university lifelong learning under the last government), would also be a positive move, opening up more opportunities to the kinds of adult student Robbins was particularly concerned about and lending meaningful support to his conviction that education is not a ‘once-for-all process’. Despite government efforts to ameliorate some of these problems (such as the very welcome partial relaxation of the ELQ rule), the continuing decline in mature and part-time student numbers is extremely bad news for social mobility and there remains a serious risk that the loans system will ultimately result in a two-tier system, with less-advantaged ‘non-standard’ students obliged to opt for the low-cost, ‘second-class’ model, while the elite institutions remain the preserve of the already privileged. This, I imagine, would be just about the last thing Robbins would have wanted.

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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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Are mature students an endangered species?

Last week, UCAS published its final end-of-cycle data on full-time higher education applications and acceptances for 2012. They showed, as expected, that there was a significant drop in the number of full-time students going to British universities in 2012. Beyond this, there was little agreement among commentators and in the media as to what the figures showed or how alarmed we should be by them.

Overall, there was a fall of 27,210 – or 5.5 per cent – in the number of people accepted for places at UK institutions, a fall largely attributable to the rise in the tuition fee cap at English universities from £3,375 to £9,000 (and to the spike this caused in the previous year’s figures). In England, acceptances fell from 415,069 in 2011 to 388,796 in 2012 – a 6.3 per cent drop – while in Wales numbers fell from 26,249 to 24,128 (an 8.1 per cent drop). Both reductions were driven by a decrease in acceptances for students domiciled in England. Scotland and Northern Ireland both saw increases in acceptances, by 1.9 per cent and 5.2 per cent, respectively.

Some coverage of the UCAS figures quoted a 13 per cent (51,000) fall in acceptances in England (and, less frequently, a 12 per cent drop in Wales). This figure is for acceptances by academic year of entry rather than for acceptances by UCAS cycle, which includes students who are accepted but who chose to defer entry. There was a large reduction in deferred acceptances in the 2011 cycle – with students reluctant to enter in 2012 under the new fees regime – with a return to more typical levels of deferral in 2012. The result of this was to produce a spike in numbers for 2011 and to deepen the fall in acceptances for the 2012-13 academic cycle, producing the apparent discrepancy with UCAS’s figure of a 6.3 per cent drop for England. Compared to the 2010-11 academic year, 2012-13 acceptances were eight per cent lower for England and seven per cent lower for Wales.

UCAS provides a breakdown of applicants by age group, showing that, in the UK, there has been a 4.7 per cent fall in accepted applicants aged 25 and over since 2011, compared to a 5.4 per cent drop for people aged 20 and under and a 7.1 per cent drop for people aged between 21 and 24. These figures give no special cause for concern with regard to numbers of mature students, previously reported to be in particular decline. But they do not tell the whole story and it is worth digging a little deeper to get a sense of some of the real trends here – trends which suggest that while numbers of younger students are holding up pretty well (there is, in fact, quite a bit of good news here for ministers) there is a sharp and ongoing dip in the numbers of mature students in the HE system.

In comparing 2012 figures with those for the previous year we need to bear in mind the considerable spike in applications among young people we saw in 2011, as students hurried to avoid the near tripling of tuition fees. This spike helped disguise what was a fairly hefty drop in mature student acceptances last year. In England, accepted applications for people aged 20 and under increased by 10,205, from 314,049 in 2010 to 324,254 in 2011. This represented a 3.2 per cent increase over a period when figures for 21 to 24 year olds, 25 to 39 year olds, and people aged 40 and above all declined (by 4.0, 6.6 and 8.2 per cent, respectively). The number of acceptances for people aged 20 and under fell to 304,277 in 2012, a 6.2 per cent drop on 2011. However, if we compare the numbers with 2010 we see a more modest fall of 9,772, or 3.1 per cent.

Compare this to figures for older students. Between 2010 and 2012 the number of people aged between 21 and 24 accepted into an HEI fell by 12.1 per cent, with similarly significant falls of 12.3 per cent for people aged between 21 and 39 and 10.2 per cent for people aged 40 and above. This is a worrying fall, a sign that it is older students who are faring the worst in terms of falling intake. The latest figures for all applicants for autumn 2013 show a further overall fall of 6.3 per cent, suggesting the decline may be more than the inevitable fluctuation caused by the introduction of a new system. The reduction is likely to be compounded by a perhaps steeper decline in part-time student numbers. Institutions have been reporting significant declines in the number of people wishing to study part-time since the introduction of tuition fee loans for part-time students in 2012.

Given these figures it is not surprising to see the biggest hit being taken by some of the UK’s newest universities, which typically take a more innovative approach to widening participation and tend to include more mature and locally based students among their populations. UCAS’s figures show that London Metropolitan University fared the worst, accepting 3,100 fewer students, a drop of 43 per cent compared to 2011. Numbers fell by between a quarter and a fifth at Bolton, East London, Greenwich, Leeds Metropolitan and University Campus Suffolk, while 10 of the 24 members of the Russell Group also saw a decline in acceptances.

There is little sign that numbers are recovering, with mature students continuing to lose out. Does it matter that mature student numbers are in decline, when recruitment of younger students is holding up? I think it does, for a number of reasons. First of all, as many tutors and vice-chancellors will confirm, mature students make a really significant contribution to the intellectual lives of their institutions. They bring a commitment and determination to their studies, born of the sacrifices full-time study usually implies for older people, together with often rich life experience and freshness of perspective.

Second, mature students are often from non-traditional backgrounds and their recruitment contributes to efforts to promote social mobility and combat social exclusion. Never too late to learn, a report on mature students in HE, published by Million+ and the NUS, found that, compared to young students, mature students are more likely to have non-traditional qualifications, to be from black and minority ethnic groups and to have known disabilities. A failure to reverse the decline in mature student admissions would be a significant blow to government efforts to widen access to higher education. And third, the skills mature students gain are economically useful, something we cannot afford to overlook in a society that is ageing. Creating opportunities for people to access education at the key points of transition in their lives is going to be increasingly important.

There was positive, if overdue, recognition of the need ‘to understand better the HE experience of part-time and mature students’, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England earlier this month. However, as this analysis shows, the decline in mature and part-time student numbers needs to be addressed as a priority. It is disappointing to see this issue – so critical in terms of both social mobility and economic growth (both picked out as priorities in the letter) – left on the sidelines once again. The letter confirms that widening access to higher education remains a strategic priority for government and calls for an injection of ‘pace and rigour’ in progress in widening access. This is certainly welcome, but little will come of these good intentions if the crisis in recruitment of mature and part-time students continues to be overlooked.

This post was originally published here

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Where are we now? The coalition’s midterm review

The coalition’s midterm ‘renewal of vows’ was an opportunity for the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister to reaffirm their commitment to the government’s ongoing programme of reform. The 52-page review document dedicated a page and a half to ‘further education and universities’ and, while there was little new in policy terms, there was a firm undertaking to continue the direction of travel and focus on implementing reforms already in train.

The big society was dutifully name-checked but it is clear that the concept, a usefully obscure peg on which far too much hope has been pinned and too much creative thought expended, will no longer provide a guiding narrative for policy. Despite this, much of the rhetoric of the coalition continues to be framed in terms of decentralising power away from Westminster to ‘counties, cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and citizens’. The emphasis is firmly on finding local, as opposed to centrally driven, solutions to local economic and social problems, and to getting the right blend of planning and funding arrangements to achieve this. As the report notes:

It is not the grand plans of politicians and bureaucrats that will ultimately deliver social progress and build social capital, but the ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of the British people – the Big Society.

The report talks up the coalition’s ‘sweeping reforms to increase local authority freedom’ and its abolition of regional government, pledging to ‘continue to devolve responsibility to local government’ and to take forward Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that local areas should have single funding pots. It also affirms its commitment to giving neighbourhoods ‘greater powers to do things for themselves’ – citing its Social Action Fund to provide opportunities for people to get involved in volunteering and its plan to train community organisers in the most deprived communities – though many in the voluntary sector, faced with ‘crippling cuts’ to charity funding, may find the suggestion that the coalition has ‘offered support to all those who want to improve their communities and their local services’ a little difficult to take.

The section on universities and further education asserts the coalition’s commitment to rectify what it describes as Britain’s historic tendency to undervalue ‘both the academic and technical skills a modern economy needs’. It promises to ‘take the tough decisions needed to ensure that our universities thrive’, adding:

We value them for their intrinsic, as well as their economic, worth: as seats of learning and research dedicated to increasing the sum of human knowledge and understanding, and as centres of innovation and invention, the driving force behind our increasingly high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

It is disappointing that the role of higher education institutions in engaging their communities and contributing to local economic growth is overlooked here. The government’s utilitarian vision, as expressed here and elsewhere, falls some way short of that set out in the Dearing report, which recognised that higher education has a critical role to play in building and sustaining a learning society, as well as in securing economic growth. As the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning argued, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. It is worth reasserting that higher education is an important public good, as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills, as much about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfillment as it is about equipping them for work.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important both in achieving economic growth and in addressing the needs of adults who do not currently participate in any learning at all. The government has taken important steps ‘to provide more financial support to students from low-income families’ and to extend income-contingent loans to part-time students. However, its good intentions are being undermined by the unintended consequences of some of its other reforms, as can be seen in the sharp drop in the numbers of mature students applying to study full-time in higher education. There are indications that there has also been a sharp drop in part-time admissions and concerns about the impact this will have on institutions which traditionally attract large numbers of part-time students. It is perhaps too soon to claim, as the report does in recapping the coalition’s changes to higher education funding, that it has ‘put universities on a secure and sustainable financial footing’. The government and the sector will need to think carefully about how to ensure part-time higher education study makes its full contribution both to the country’s future economic wellbeing and to widening access and improving social mobility.

The ‘different but equally important’ role ascribed to further education colleges is similarly narrow: ‘equipping our people with the basic, applied and specialist skills they need in the world of work, either at the beginning of their careers, or when they need re-skilling.’ Ahead of the government’s response to the Richard review, there is the laudable, and long overdue, ambition to see a ‘system of apprenticeships to rival those out countries such as Germany’ and a commitment to raising standards in line with Richard’s recommendations. The report undertakes to simplify and increase the rigour of FE qualifications, to make skill provision more responsive to employer demand and to introduce traineeships to support young people at work. It also reiterates the coalition’s commitment to introduce, from August, Advanced Learning Loans for people aged 24 and over. The impact of the latter reform on adult participation remains very much an unknown quantity, despite welcome moves to mitigate some of the potential negative impact of the policy. One of the lessons of the decline in participation among mature students in HE is that the government needs to do more to ensure funding changes do not deter mature applications. A good place to start would be to think about how it communicates with them.

Nobody, of course, will be surprised that, in a short summary document such as this, there is no mention of adult education more broadly conceived or acknowledgement of its wider benefits to a range of other policy agendas, but some recognition would have suggested a better grasp of the interconnectedness of these agendas and of the wider post-16 education landscape, in particular. The pace of reform during the first two years of coalition government has been rapid, and there is much to be said for slowing down the pace a little, while current changes bed down and their impacts become clearer. Ministers tend still to think of the different parts of the post-16 system as discrete and isolated rather than as part of a wider framework of lifelong learning. Achieving a better articulation of the way in which the different parts of the system relate to each other will be a critical test of the government’s reforms during the remainder of this parliament.

This article originally appeared here.

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HE and social mobility: the problem of mature and part-time students

Alan Milburn’s justified criticism of the government’s decision to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance – a ‘very bad mistake’, he argues – may have grabbed the headlines, but there is much else that is good and useful in his thoughtful, intelligent report on the role of higher education in advancing social mobility.

Particularly welcome is the recognition that higher education is an important public and social good – as well as an economic one. As the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning noted, ‘universities contribute across the full range of desirable forms of capital – human, social, identity, creative and mental’. Higher education is as much about cultural enrichment as it is about skills. It is about helping people grow intellectually and achieve fulfilment as much as it is about equipping them for work. And while nobody would deny that it makes a critical contribution to the economic success of the country, to create a system that, in Lord Dearing’s words, can ‘inspire and enable’ individuals from every background to ‘develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life’, a wider vision is necessary, and Milburn’s acknowledgement of the diverse purposes of higher education is important.

Engaging adults in higher education, and opening up more opportunities for them to study part-time, in ways that fit around their work and family circumstances, is important in achieving both economic growth and greater social mobility. For that reason, it is good to see the consideration given to mature and part-time students in the report, and the concerns Milburn raises about the substantial fall in applications from mature students and the steep drop in part-time numbers expected in admissions for this year. He is also right to highlight the failure of the government to adequately communicate the new fees regime, particularly to part-timers and mature students, whom it appears to have deterred. As he notes:

While there has been considerable effort to target potential applicants from schools and colleges that go through the UCAS system, others, including mature students and part-time students, have been left out. Evidence from outreach teams suggests that part-time students are confused by, or simply unaware of, the loan support that is now available to them. Applications from this group have significantly dropped across the sector at universities which specialise in part-time students, and there is a risk that what should be a good news story regarding the extension of loans to part-time students will turn into a bad news story, as people are put off applying through a lack of effective information.

The report calls for the government to broaden its communications effort ‘to include applicants who are not coming straight from school’ and to develop ‘a new strategy for encouraging non-traditional students – especially mature and part-time students – into higher education’. It is to be hoped that ministers act on this suggestion and think seriously about how to improve their messaging to these groups.

Milburn argues, rightly in my view, that some of the government’s key policy interventions in higher education are likely to have unintended negative consequences for social mobility, in particular the so-called ‘core and margin’ mechanism, which allows ‘unconstrained recruitment of high achieving students (AAB+) and creates a ‘flexible margin’ of 20,000 places available to universities charging £7,500 or less in tuition fees. There is a danger that these reforms could further polarise the HE system, with elite institutions competing for high-achieving students and other, middle-ranking, institutions forced to cut costs (and, in some cases, inevitably, standards) in order to compete for the flexible margin of places. In particular, the unconstrained recruitment of AAB+ students will make it more difficult for mature students who have come to higher education by a non-traditional route to gain a place at highly selective institutions. Milburn says:

Such polarisation would be deeply damaging and could have undesirable consequences for social mobility if able candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds felt constrained to choose lower-cost provision. Indeed, it could create a vicious cycle in which those universities which charge less will have less scope to invest in facilities and to enhance the student experience, with the result that they may find it increasingly difficult to attract high-achieving students or those from wealthier backgrounds, regardless of the quality of teaching on offer.

Milburn’s calls for the sector to make the use of contextual data ‘as universal as possible in admissions processes’, and to standardise it, are also welcome. Many universities already make use of contextual information, for example, family income and the type of school attended by applicants, in admissions, but it should be used more widely. It is of particular importance to ‘second chance’ adult students who are less likely to have conventional qualifications. I support Milburn’s rejection of the distinction between ‘equity and excellence’ and support his argument that ‘over-reliance on A-level results engineers a distorted intake to universities, and fails to meet the criteria of excellence’. There is evidence that students who attended state schools perform better in finals compared to privately-educated pupils with the same A-level scores. It is clear that, in many cases, university admissions systems do favour students from private schools.

There are many other positives in Milburn’s report. There are sensible proposals for shifting resources away from bursaries and fee waivers towards outreach and support for students while studying, and for more and better evidence as to what approaches to outreach work best. And it is good to see recognition in the report of the important role played by HE in further education colleges in enhancing the diversity of the higher education sector, and of the need to increase the proportion of apprentices entering higher education. Milburn’s calls for greater long-term investment in education, with more public and private investment in higher education, and for an expansion in student numbers to allow more part-timers and mature students into the system, also deserve support.

Milburn is also right to say that the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and its replacement with a new system of discretionary support (‘inadequate,’ Milburn says) was a serious mistake, though there are concerns, voiced by new universities group Million+, that making universities responsible for providing financial incentives for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds could create a ‘postcode lottery’ that might lead to the exclusion of many students. Universities will be reluctant to fill the funding gap left by the withdrawal of the EMA and more thought needs to be given as to how an adequate alternative to the scheme can be funded.

In some respects, Milburn’s proposals are too narrow. While he does well to highlight significant concerns about mature and part-time student applications, much of his report is overly focused on younger, full-time students, and there is not enough on how to encourage participation among adults who are not currently learning in institutional settings. Milburn’s proposals for incentivising young people to stay on and succeed at school will do nothing to help mature students and there is little here to address specific support and retention issues facing older and part-time students. More attention too might have been given to the role of families in supporting young people into higher education, and the critical part family learning can play in transforming attitudes and aspiration. There are dangers in the report too, not least that the collective use of ‘statistical targets’ could seriously limit institutions’ capacity to respond flexibly to local circumstance and their own distinct challenges on admissions.

Participation in higher education remains painfully unequal, with the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities that the 40 per cent most disadvantaged. Milburn is right that universities, and in particular highly selective universities, need to do more to help raise aspiration and attainment and to identify excellence wherever it is to be found. He is also right to dismiss objections that the focus ought to be solely on schools and that a university place should be determined solely by attainment at A-level. Every university should seek to do more to widen participation and make access fairer, and the government should work to ensure a policy framework that makes this easier rather than harder. It is to be hoped that Alan Milburn’s report will reopen debate about the future and purpose of higher education and, critically, get us all thinking hard about what to do about the troubling decline in mature and part-time student admissions.

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