In many ways, the history of UK higher education over the past sixty years is a history of widening participation. Once the preserve of an exclusive elite, higher education has been steadily democratised, with huge economic, social and cultural benefits for individuals and society.
Yet we know that higher education has remained out of reach for far too many people. We know that HE matters for individual career prospects, income, and life-chances, but also for productivity, economic growth and social mobility.
With the Prime Minister pledging to double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020, there now appears to be the political will to tackle this challenge. However, recent research from the Social Market Foundation shows the Government is on course to miss its targets for widening participation in England.
So within the sector, we’ve got to look hard at what we do and how effective we are. If Ministers are genuinely serious about widening participation, then it won’t be sufficient to focus on eighteen-year-olds. More than a third of students who would fall under widening participation criteria and entered the system last year were mature students. Simply put, a narrow definition of widening participation is a contradiction in terms.
Last month, the Government announced an important review – to promote retraining and prepare people for the future labour market – with a commitment to “reviewing gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for flexible and part-time study”.
Top of my wish-list along with further ELQ relaxation is loans for those who just want to study single modules rather than whole degrees. These would open doors for people who might be tempted to try higher education but don’t have the confidence to sign up for a full degree, or are put off by big loans yet still want to improve their career prospects and life chances.
Recognition of prior learning is also key when looking at student progression. Recognised students for the skills they already have gives the confidence and self-esteem to move on to the next stage. It also improves productivity as employers benefit from increased motivation of employees, enhanced workplace practice and contribution to workforce development planning.
We must avoid disincentives to progression. If the new Teaching Excellence Framework, for instance, measures success solely through progress to honours degree level within a single institution this would act as to inhibit student progression as institutions try to hang on to students. Instead, we need systems and incentives which encourage students to progress appropriately from FE to HE or within HE.
Flexibility is also central to these clear progression pathways, as our success in Scotland demonstrates where we have progression agreements with 80% of further education colleges, giving students easy access to information and support about their options with us.
There is scope to challenge the orthodoxy and supremacy of academic credit, and be more imaginative and about what should ‘count’. It would be very positive if approved online short courses like MOOCs can count as credits in future.
Singapore – somewhere we traditionally think of as an archetypal free-market society – offers incredibly generous subsidies up to 90% for individuals and their employers to pay for life-long learning. These are open to anyone, of any age, for any subject. And employers get a rebate on the costs of backfilling the posts of anyone who needs time off to study. Singapore is a country which clearly recognises life-long learning as a vital social and economic asset. The levels of funding alone demonstrate that they view life-long learning as a critical investment in their future. In effect, Singapore has introduced a kind of Lifetime Leaning Account, into which government, employers and individuals can contribute to enabling learning to take place throughout a lifetime according to the learner’s needs.
There is a need for the same economic, social and cultural commitment to lifetime learning here in the UK. We should not have a society in which people only get the chance to go to university at eighteen, nor a one-size-fits-all model of higher education which assumes that everyone wants to leave home, study full-time and spend three years doing it.
Increasing equality of opportunity, boosting skill levels and enhancing competitiveness requires a thriving and diverse higher education sector. Lifetime learning must be valued as highly as traditional degrees and part-time and mature students should be given the same amount of support as the bright young things leaving school.
Across the sector, we must demonstrate how efforts to support part-time students and lifetime learning should go hand-in-hand with efforts to widen participation. Higher education and government must work together. The need and the time is now.