14 June 2019

The Revival of Life-long Learning?

As the education world digests the Augar report, with its complex and occasionally controversial range of proposals, it may be worth considering the implications for part-time education and life-long learning because the Augar review made some unexpected but welcome recommendations in this area. In recent years, part-time undergraduate students have become something of an endangered species and funding for adult education in the further education sector has been substantially reduced.  Successive hikes in tuition fees and changes to student support, not least the decision by the Labour Government in 2007 to deny support for students already holding a degree or its equivalent, triggered a relentless decline in part-time student numbers.   The years 2012/13 saw a fall of 31% in part-time student numbers, from 247,895 to 170,880.  This decline has continued and by 2017/18 there were just 110,000 part-time students, compared with 344,000 a decade earlier.

The Open University has suffered the most, forced to close regional offices and radically changing its methods of delivery.  Many other universities have either reduced their part-time undergraduate provision or discontinued it altogether.  A detailed and wide-ranging report in 2018 by Clare Callender and John Thompson on behalf of the Sutton Trust (The Lost Part Timers. The decline in part-time undergraduate higher education in England.  March 2018) revealed the biggest drop has been among mature students over-35, those pursuing sub-degree qualifications, such as courses leading to institutional credit, and low intensity courses (lower than 25% full-time equivalent).

Why does this matter?  A 2017 report by the Open University and supported by the CBI, “Fixing the Broken Market in Part-time study”,  suggests the fall in part-time numbers is harming the economy and limiting social mobility. The Leitch Review on Skills published in 2006, which remains one of the most comprehensive inquiries of its kind, warned that unless more flexible study opportunities were offered, the UK economy would fail to compete.  Leitch also noted that only a quarter of the UK workforce had a qualification equivalent to a first degree; the situation has not changed a great deal since then.

Given there remains a significant deficit in the proportion of higher-qualifications in the workforce compared with many European and international competitors, there needs to be a step-change in provision. Part-time study is an obvious means of meeting this challenge especially as we enter more uncertain times for our economy.  Research conducted by the Sutton Trust and the Boston Consulting Group concludes that up to 15 million jobs in the UK will be at risk through automation so the ability to upskill will become more crucial in the context of these dramatic changes.  Ironically, it is those who invested in acquiring specialist skills who may be the most vulnerable and need to consider a change in direction.  The need to reconsider the restrictions imposed on equivalent prior qualifications will come to the fore.

The Welsh Government has recently led the way by embarking on its own solution and one which appears to go further than the Augar recommendations.  Following the recent Diamond review on Higher Education funding and student finance in Wales, and in order to meet ambitious targets for skills in the workplace, the government has now introduced a combination of grants and loans for part-time and distance-learning course students.  As a result, there has been a sharp increase in part-time enrolments, 34% at Welsh universities since the system was introduced. The Open University saw a remarkable 49% increase and as Louise Casella, the Director of the Open University in Wales reported there has been a 67% increase in students from Wales’ most economically disadvantaged areas, a 57% increase in disabled students and a 30% increase in BME learners. Post-graduates too are being offered bursaries and loans resulting in an increase in enrolments of 58%.

Augur does not go as far as this and indeed there are concerns at some of the proposed restrictions regarding which part-time courses might qualify for support.  Nonetheless it is a step in the right direction, especially the proposal for life-long learning loans.  The challenge will be delivering these recommendations, finding the additional public funding to bridge the gap between current tuition fees and lower ones and identifying where the additional billion pounds will come to re-invest in further education.  Indeed, there is a long way to go before there is any Green or White paper, let alone legislation, especially given the present preoccupation with Brexit and the lack of focus or priority by the current Conservative leadership candidates in this matter.

Even if nothing much comes of the bulk of the Augar report, and there are already significant doubts over its implementation, part-time and further education needs to be at the forefront of the debate on education, both for the health of the economy and for social cohesion.  While universities and further education colleges can deliver part-time courses, there must be a better system of resourcing both the provision and the students themselves and a serious determination to make life-long education work.  The debate has moved on and for once we can begin to envisage a more holistic system of higher and further education which recognises the changing needs of people at different points in their lives.  But, given all the current turbulence, will Westminster pay attention?

by Deian Hopkin