We must not dodge financial equity for flexible learning

Unless you're full time and on-campus, student finance policy pretends you don't exist. Gareth Jones and Margaret Greenaway make the case for support for flexible learning

Gareth Jones is Deputy President at the Open University Students' Association

Margaret Greenaway is President at the Open University Students' Association

Part-time and distance-learning students are often forgotten in discussions around higher education policy and practice.

At the Open University, we know this better than most. It is most evident in England’s student finance system, which seems to disregard many of the barriers that parents, carers and people who work face in accessing higher education qualifications, especially at full-time intensity.

However, with the Lifelong Loan Entitlement on the horizon, and the cost-of-living crisis forcing many more students to seek more flexible ways of conducting their studies, there has never been a better time to raise awareness, both in government and across the sector, of the opportunities to build more equity into our future student finance system.

That’s why we (the Open University Students Association) invited fellow elected student leaders from institutions across England to sign an open letter to the Department for Education urging the government to make changes to student finance support for part-time and distance-learning students.

The fact that student leaders from 27 different institutions put their names to the open letter shows two things – first, that people who get into student politics care about equity and fairness, even when it might be in relation to an issue that doesn’t directly impact them. And second, that issue may be becoming more relevant to traditional brick universities.

Part time challenges

Part-time higher education students play a crucial role in our education and economic system. They juggle their studies with work and family responsibilities. However, currently, part-time students face significant challenges due to the lack of access to certain financial support.

One of the major demands made by the student leaders is to extend access to the Childcare Grant and Parents’ Learning Allowance to part-time students. These grants provide critical financial assistance for full-time students, enabling them to afford childcare services and cover additional expenses related to their educational journey.

However, parents are much more likely to need to study at part-time intensity, and by excluding part-time students from these grants, we inadvertently limit their opportunities and perpetuate inequalities within the educational system.

Distance barriers

In addition to the challenges faced by part-time students, distance-learning students also encounter financial barriers. Being a student, whether on campus or through distance learning, comes with costs such as learning materials and adequate technology.

However, currently, maintenance loans are not available to part-time distance-learners unless they have a diagnosed and evidenced disability. This creates a financial barrier for many potential students who wish to pursue education through this mode.

Students are changing

An interesting, if tangentially related, point is the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. Those who were at Wonkhe Secret Life of Students 2023 in March will have noted the discussions about the increasing number of “commuter students” who are choosing to study at institutions within a commutable distance from their parents’ homes so that they do not have to give up jobs and do not have to pay for student accommodation. The latest Sutton Trust research backs this up.

It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that if the student finance system catered better for part-time and distance-learning options, these students would have more choice and a better chance of finding a mode and intensity of study that would enable them to be successful.

The changes to student finance proposed in the open letter would have a significant impact, not only on the lives of part-time and distance-learning students but also on the broader educational landscape and the government’s levelling-up agenda.

Data from the Department for Education reveals that 36 per cent of part-time students have dependent children, compared to only 9 per cent of full-time students. This highlights the critical need for financial support to help part-time students balance their family and career responsibilities while pursuing higher education.

Students who study via distance-learning are more likely to remain in their local areas after completing their qualifications and use their skills to benefit the local economy.

So incentivising this mode of study could also contribute to the government’s goal of empowering local communities, or levelling-up, through education.

By implementing our proposed changes, the government can create a more inclusive and equitable educational system, where lifelong learning becomes accessible to all, irrespective of what stage of life they are at, or what study mode they choose.

I hope that the government will take our open letter seriously and work towards a more progressive and supportive student finance system in England – but so far, the government’s consultation responses released have not given any indication that these issues are being considered in the LLE.

In the meantime, I hope we can continue this conversation, and work within the sector to get the voices and experiences of part-time and distance-learning students into the mainstream.

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