If upskilling and reskilling the workforce was a real and pressing issue before Brexit, it is set to become even more acute in the future.
Concrete commitments to address the barriers to higher education for mature learners, informed by the experiences and knowledge of the institutions which cater for them, are needed more urgently than ever. This is the clear and unequivocal economic argument for addressing the decline in part-time and mature student enrolment. However, the societal argument must not be lost. The students who have most to gain from higher education are also those who are most debt-averse – as demonstrated by the precipitous fall in enrolments when fees increased in 2012.
For the prospective mature student who wants to improve their career prospects and potentially make meeting financial commitments such as mortgage repayments easier, the decision to sign up to 30 years of student loan repayments for a salary boost of unspecified value is not an easy one. However, of those that take the plunge, 92 per cent say it was a positive experience and more than a quarter describe it as “life-changing” according to a 2018 Million+ report. The value of lifelong learning to the UK economy and to the individuals who choose to pursue it is immense. The world is continually evolving, so if we are to continue to thrive as a country, it is vital that the skill set of the workforce keeps pace with this change.
Labour’s newly convened lifelong learning commission is tasked with developing proposals for a system that can provide the education opportunities that individual learners need at all stages of their life and career. It will also propose a system that is able to address glaring gaps in our workforce’s skillset and the challenges that are likely to emerge in a post-Brexit economy.
Lessons from Birkbeck
Birkbeck is unique in the UK higher education sector in terms of the percentage of its student population who are mature (92 per cent) and part-time (64 per cent) and who attend face-to-face tuition, and I will champion the voice of these students within this group, ensuring that their particular needs are fully understood and considered by the commission.
Studying for a higher education qualification as a mature learner often has a truly life-changing impact. I meet countless students who, for whatever reason, did not go to university straight from school, for whom it opens up new career pathways and opportunities. I also meet many who are looking to change careers or reskill because of changes in their sector or in personal circumstances. Mature students tend to have more commitments outside of university than those attending straight from school.
They often need to study part-time so that they can continue working to meet family or other commitments, such as childcare and paying the mortgage. This juggling act of studying three or four nights per week, while working, while bringing up the kids means that they are some of the most driven and hard-working students in the sector, having chosen – and often made sacrifices – in order to be at university. It also means that part-time and mature students usually need specialist support from tutors and student service teams who are experienced in recognising and offering solutions to the particular challenges that they face.
When higher tuition fees were introduced in 2012, there was a dramatic fall in the number of mature and part-time students across the sector. Time and again politicians and organisations from across the political spectrum, from the higher education sector and from business have lamented this decline. But we have yet to see effective policy commitments from any party that would address the issue.
The opportunity to study at university regardless of their prior qualifications also ought to be available to all who are likely to benefit from it and who will benefit the economy from doing so. Birkbeck has always looked at markers of students’ potential, rather than markers of past attainment, when offering places on our programmes.
Time for bold solutions
I have argued that part-time fees should be cut and a teaching grant for part-time courses reintroduced to enable students to pay their fees without requiring a loan, or at least while only requiring a much smaller one. I will continue to put forward this argument, which I am sure will be one of many possible solutions interrogated by the commmission, which could contribute to solving what has become an intractable problem for the sector and the country over recent years.
Similarly, if a future Labour government fulfils its commitment to abolish tuition fees for higher education students, it needs to ensure that universities are provided with sufficient resources to teach part time/mature students and to provide for their particular needs. Universities and government will need to be bold and creative in how we provide and define part-time education. This might require more institutions to follow Birkbeck’s model of evening teaching; greater use of online or blended learning; and intensive or condensed programmes. The floor must be opened for all options to be considered.
I have joined colleagues on the Commission with vast experience of working with mature students and am looking forward to working with them to develop proposals for a lifelong learning system which is truly meets the needs of individuals and the country as a whole.