Half-way there – reflections at the end of the second year

This blog was contributed by Mark Simpson who is in the second year of a four-year BSc Environmental Science at Birkbeck.

I had known for some years that I wanted to “get a degree” but work, family, life and cost all conspired to get in the way of my further formal education. When Student Finance started offering funding (student loans) for part-time programmes back in 2010, I started to really think about which area of study would really engage me and keep me motivated. The key being “me”. Whatever I decided to do, it had to be for me. So I started reading.

In the introduction to his brilliant book A Short History of Nearly Everything (Penguin Random House), Bill Bryson comments that he “didn’t know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on.” I then knew, deep in my head and heart, what I wanted to study.  I was born and brought up in Asia and grew up in a multicultural world where monsoons, typhoons, seas, oceans, islands, highlands and a host of exotic plants and animals were part of my life. Professionally, I have been privileged to travel and work all over the planet – South America, Middle East, East and West Africa, Europe – and while I know something of the wonderful people, cultures and languages that inhabit our world – my knowledge of the physical planet on which I lived didn’t go far beyond my GCSE “O” level Geography.

Armed with this clear insight, I surfed the internet looking for a part-time Physical Geography undergraduate programme and while I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, I did come across Birkbeck and an invitation to book into one of its open evenings. So on the day, I rocked up to the Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS) desk and promptly described what I was looking for to a very patient lecturer, who in turn introduced me to something called “Environmental Science” – a four-year programme with modules from two different departments – GEDS and Earth Sciences. My search was over: I had the world in my hands.

That was two years ago…Second year exams are coming up and I am revising Environmental Processes, Structural Geology and Geophysics. At a time when the world is talking about global warming, climate change and IPCC reports, I am deep into the core subjects that make this planet the most amazing, ever-changing home we all share. I have discovered the joy of learning new things from some brilliant lecturers – people who have changed the way I think and indeed the way I view things.

Field trips

A significant part of my experience has been getting into the field…seeing, touching
(and on occasions tasting) the very environment I am learning about.


A trip to Kings Lynn – Hunstanton Cliffs was a great balance of applying knowledge gained from “reading” and learning how to “do things” in the field (from measurements to data collection) and talking things over with fellow students – without exception, every one of us want our degree to change our lives, but feeling the collective passion for the subject matter was a new experience for me.

Timing was important too – and not just for the weather – we had consumed two plus terms of learning before we hit the field, so some “knowledge” was already there; it all came together. Using the weekend meant no loss of earnings (for me), and I only wished we had come out on the Friday afternoon!

The day field trip organised by Isobel Tomlinson also helped to inform students after knowledge had been delivered, so things connected again. The same applies to the one day Geology event at the Jurassic Coast – we saw a little of what we had been hearing/reading about.

All of the above are examples of a good learning experience in the field.

Has it been hard? Have I had to make changes to lifestyle and other commitments? In short, yes. But what I have gained and what I stand to learn over the next two years have far out compensated anything I have had to forego. This is a personal journey and has been very fulfilling so far – and on the plus side, I did not start this degree for any career reasons, but it will certainly give me options for the future.

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Part-time and mature students: three ways we could support them better

Tricia KingThis post was written by Tricia King, Pro-Vice-Master for student experience and director of external relations at Birkbeck – follow her on Twitter @TriciaKing1. The article was originally published on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network.

Wednesday is an important day in my world, as Universities UK (UUK) publishes its report, The power of part-time, in response to a commission from the business secretary, Vince Cable. My hope is that I can look back on 16 October 2013 as a tipping point in the fortunes of part-time higher education. My fear is that it will mark an important missed opportunity.

First things first – it’s a great report. It emphasises how part-time study is a “powerhouse for skills” and calls for “immediate action” to improve and better understand provision for part-time students. It makes a powerful case and clearly advocates the benefits part-time higher education creates for the economy, employers, society, social mobility and the individual student.

UUK describes the 40% national downturn in part-time recruitment that was clearly the biggest consequence of the government’s 2012 changes. I do wonder what the political consequences of a 40% downturn in 18-year-olds going to university in 2012 would have been. Somehow adult learners missing out on life changing opportunities is not a vote winner. There is lots of genuine concern but so far little action. So all power to UUK and recent president Eric Thomas for bringing this important issue briefly to the top of the agenda.

I have worked at Birkbeck for more than eight years and in that time, I’ve become known as ‘that woman who goes on about part-time students’. I’m familiar with stifled yawns, glazed eyes and comments from sector colleagues about getting a proper job. But I am obsessed with this important cause because on a daily basis I hear stories of transformation. Our students are remarkable adults who juggle work and family with study. They struggle and sacrifice to improve their opportunities in life. I am unashamed to champion their cause.

Right now we have a real opportunity to make a difference and I feel remarkably optimistic because so many good people and national agencies are currently paying serious attention. Part-time higher education is attracting more and more interest from employers, policy-makers, politicians, and the media. The Part-time Matters campaign was launched in May by a cross-sector group of organisations, including Birkbeck, to promote part-time study.

An early day motion recognising the “vital role of adult learning” and its transformative effect on issues including social mobility proved popular in the House of Commons in May, and the House of Lords also held a debate. The CBI backed more learn-while-you-earn schemes and stronger relationships between universities and businesses in its blueprint for higher skills, called Tomorrow’s growth: new routes to higher skills, published in July.

The Office for Fair Access has made part-time higher education a focus for future work. UCAS’s updated website includes signposts to part-time provision. HEPI, IPPR and the Higher Education Academy have all published important part-time insights in the past six months. And this week, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is running a national campaign, Make your future happen, which includes a particular focus on part-time opportunities and the benefits that they offer students.

Things are changing. So far, so brilliant. But what needs to happen now? Firstly, I believe we urgently need a cross-sector part-time task force to keep momentum moving and ensure a cost-effective and irresistible joining up of this wave of activity. That group can gather shared compelling evidence to secure government policy change to support the future of part-time higher education.

Secondly, the ELQ loan barrier needs to go. The policy that removed funding for students studying for an ‘equivalent or lower qualification’ means adult learners cannot get a government loan to upskill or reskill and simply cannot afford the new high fees without the loan. More ELQ students need access to loans. At the recent Conservative party conference, David Willetts made a welcome start when he said about ELQ: “one could dream of a world where we just get rid of it”. Willetts should be encouraged to dream. He fought the policy in opposition; I hope he finds ways to remove it in government.

Thirdly, I’d like to see the return of the part-time premium. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) suggested that part-time students cost 15-44% more to recruit, retain and support than full-time students. The part-time premium that was introduced to tackle this issue was removed this spring just as the national 40% downturn was reported.

We know government hoped that the introduction of loans for part-time learners in 2012 would support both students and the institutions who teach them. In the short term at least, this is not the case. Adult learners are much less likely to take out loans, it seems. Please give back the part-time premium, at least until the current recruitment crisis stabilises.

Part-time higher education is undeniably complex. National data is underexplored and poorly understood. Easy solutions are genuinely elusive but that’s not a reason to give up and file the problem in the tray marked ‘too difficult’. Those hard working students need us all to focus and make sure today becomes a red letter day and tipping point, not a missed opportunity.

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