As fellow wonks will be aware, the Higher Education & Research Bill is with the House of Lords. The Lords, many of them academics, Chancellors or Chairs of Council have deep personal knowledge about the sector. What Peers tell me they want to focus attention on are the missed opportunities of this Bill.
Peers understand the importance of lifelong learning and of educational opportunities for all – many represent excellent examples themselves. We know that many of them are as concerned as we are about part-time and mature learners – whose particular needs are barely acknowledged in this Bill in its current form. Part-time study, so important to the future prosperity of our country, is in danger of being overlooked in the debate around the Bill.
Since 2012, the number of part-time students has fallen by 50%. There are many reasons for this including the introduction of higher fees, ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Level Qualifications) restrictions and a diminishing number of employers willing to pay for their employees to undertake further study.
Part-time study is usually local. Part-time students don’t – or often can’t – travel to different parts of the country to study. They want to access higher education near their home or place of work and at a time that suits them. Many of Birkbeck’s part-time students are in Theresa May’s ‘Just About Managing’ category, juggling a job – sometimes more than one – along with childcare and maybe even caring for elderly relatives too. By studying with us, they are improving their prospects. At Birkbeck, we hear time and again from our students that our evening teaching is the only way they have been able to return to study while juggling these commitments.
Part-time study is also crucial to the future skills needs of our country. Lord Leitch said in 2006 when reviewing the UK’s skills needs in 2020 (now only four years away): “Improving our schools will not solve these problems [of improving skills]…Today over 70 per cent of our 2020 workforce has already completed their compulsory education.” So the only way to reach existing workers is through part-time study. In an economy with decreasing job security very few people would wish to give up full- or part-time work to study full-time.
As the government places a strong emphasis on its Industrial Strategy and reaching the ‘left behind’ communities to ensure the nation’s prosperity is evenly felt, then surely higher-level skills must be part of that picture. Some of this will be reaching out to people who have never completed a degree before. Even within London, the city with the highest proportion of graduates in Europe, there are some council wards in Hackney where the participation rate is below 20%. In neighbouring Haringey, Birkbeck runs outreach sessions in low participation areas. All of this remains true to the principles of our founder Dr George Birkbeck who, in 1823 when founding the College, was accused of “scattering the seeds of evil” by educating working adults in London.
As the workforce changes through the Fourth Industrial Revolution towards a knowledge economy, and with further demographic shifts, those of us who are already graduates may not be immune either. This is why Birkbeck would like to see further relaxations on ELQ restrictions for first-degree holders, particularly in Law, Economics and Management subjects which will still be in demand even in our more robotic or artificially intelligent futures.
It’s worth noting that, following the Diamond Review on Higher Education Funding and Student Finance in Wales, the Welsh government has effectively abolished ELQ restrictions altogether. This will be an interesting test case to see whether part-time study increases in Wales with these changes.
While we warmly welcome measures such as the relaxation of ELQ on STEM subjects, part-time maintenance loans from 2018 and the postgraduate loans now in place from this Autumn, all of which should give that extra bit of support to those studying at undergraduate or masters level, we think the government should seize the opportunity of the Bill to raise the status of part-time study and mature learners. To that end, we would like to see a dedicated board member of the new Office for Students solely to represent part-time and mature learners.
The Bill is the first major piece of higher education legislation in 25 years and presents an opportunity to look afresh at many assumptions made by the sector. The government wishes to see the emergence of disruptors in the sector, and if they are high quality and have appropriate safeguards then all to the good. The new architecture of higher education needs to seize the opportunity to reflect the diversity of provision, and not make restrictive assumptions about traditional ways of styuding.