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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