Working in a newsroom, you get used to seeing some of the same stories coming around each year. There are perennial favourites which are guaranteed to sneak into the running order. High up the list is the autumnal ritual of teenagers setting off for their first term at university – making new friends and embarking on an academic career which could shape the rest of their lives.
In fact, when talking about higher education, the media are dominated by school leavers and tales from parents about their children flying the nest. Equally, the overwhelming focus of the Government’s higher education narrative is on 18-year-olds studying full-time.
Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. After all, it is the experience shared by the vast majority of both the politicians and the journalists who report on them. The well-trodden path from school via university to a job has served countless generations well and we should not forget that. However, behind the rise in the number of young people setting off for three years on the traditional university route lies a series of fundamental challenges facing a vital part of our higher education sector. While the Government can point to statistics which suggest that changes in funding have not put people off studying full-time, the same cannot be said for part-time study, where the impact of the changes has been severe.
It is probably easy to underestimate the size of the part-time sector as it is huge. Or to be slightly more precise, part-time students represent about one-fifth of all university students in England. However, the number of people studying part-time has dropped by 41 per cent over the last five years, with 200,000 fewer part-time students than in 2009/10. It would be very easy to put this decline down to the recent recession, as many people do. But take a look at other parts of the UK and you will see that simply will not do. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all suffered the same economic downturn, but the decline in part-time students there is a fraction of that seen in England, where policy and funding changes over the last five years have had a major impact.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the unique benefits of part-time study, not just to the individual students, but to the UK economy and society as a whole. At The Open University (OU), around 70 per cent of our students combine their study with some kind of employment. By studying part-time, students are able to apply what they have learned directly in their workplace, in addition to making an ongoing contribution to the economy through income tax and National Insurance contributions.
Then there is the role of part-time study in supporting those for whom the traditional university route is either unaffordable or impractical. Take disabled students, for example. The OU has around 20,000 students who declare a disability – that is more disabled students than many other universities have students.
But for a Government committed to balancing the books, the real case for supporting part-time study is economic. The obscure Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge – the percentage of total expenditure on student loans which the Government assumes will never be repaid – stands at 45 per cent for full-time students. The official estimate for part-time students has been 65 per cent, although this is now being revised following the submission of new data by the OU. It is possible that once the new figures have been passed through the Whitehall number-crunching machine, the official figure will fall below that for full-time students. That would send a clear message to policymakers that part-time students are, in many ways, a better bet economically than their full-time counterparts.
Arguably, one of the biggest barriers standing between those wishing to study part-time and their ability to do so was erected only in 2008/09. Among the sweeping reforms to higher education introduced by the Labour Government was the phasing out of funding for students in England who already held a qualification at the same or a higher level. By the time 2012 came around and new higher fees were introduced, this policy remained in place. People who wish to retrain to further their career, for example, may well be unable to do so. For many, this is likely to be due to a decision they took decades ago. As teenagers up and down the country pore over university prospectuses and decide where they wish to go, they can be forgiven for not mapping out their future in too much detail – after all, the quality of social opportunities can be just as much a factor in their decision making as the quality of the course, and understandably so. Moreover, having moved into higher education after three decades at the BBC, I know as well as anyone that lives and careers can take you in unexpected directions. This makes the ability to retrain or upskill to remain competitive vital. The decision to implement – and retain – these Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) restrictions, means the decision that teenagers take when selecting a degree is sometimes a decision for life.
Ministers have talked positively about the need to support hard-working, proactive and aspirational people. These are precisely the sort of people who have the drive and determination to succeed in part-time study, but whose access to funding for a degree which would help them in their career can be blocked by a decision they took when they were 17.
The situation has improved a little. In 2013, David Willetts announced a partial relaxation of the rules, exempting those studying towards an Engineering, Technology or Computer Science qualification from the ELQ restrictions. However, our evidence at the OU suggests there is more to be done. In 2011/12, new ELQ students in England made up about 16 per cent of our student base, a figure which had declined to just 6 per cent last year. In addition, anecdotal evidence suggests students can be confused by the complexity of the current situation. For example, someone considering whether to study Computer Science or Mathematics, may find they can secure access to funding for the former but not the latter.
The Government talks passionately about the need to support hard-working and self-reliant people. By fully removing these restrictions, the Government could send a clear signal that it is serious about rewarding those who put in the hours and want to improve their prospects. With the majority of part-time students already in work, those income tax and National Insurance contributions will keep coming.
An effect of the funding changes introduced in 2012 was to reduce the attractiveness of studying on a module-by-module basis, requiring students instead to commit upfront to taking on a whole degree if they wish to be eligible for a loan. In the world of higher fees, access to studying individual modules has become unaffordable for many, with a decline of more than one-third in the number of part-time module-only students in England since 2009/10. We know that employers are on the look out for short, high-quality and targeted learning options for their employees. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills themselves commissioned a survey on part-time higher education which recognises the demand among employers for dynamic, bitesize training. By making loans available for individual modules, rather than full qualifications, the Government could open up access to courses that provide specialist skills and enable hard-working people to benefit not just themselves but their employers through increased productivity.
These are just two ideas among many which the Government needs to consider carefully as it develops its higher education policy. I could equally have suggested making maintenance loans available to part-time students to help them with their living costs, or considered the restrictions on the proposed new postgraduate loans, with distance-learning students set to be ineligible for loans along with those who study at a lower intensity (below 50 per cent).
Being vice chancellor of The Open University is one of the most inspiring jobs in the world. Of course it brings its fair share of challenges, but it also gives a unique chance to shake hands with thousands of graduates as they collect their degrees. I have seen first-hand the drive, determination and commitment these remarkable individuals need to succeed. They offer huge economic and societal potential, and by putting an improved framework in place to support and attract people to part-time study, we can ensure more of this potential is realised for the national good.
This piece forms part of It’s the finance, Stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do with it published by HEPI.