As has often been the case within Parliament, it is the House of Lords that can be relied on to take a laser-like approach on matters of higher education. Therefore, it was no surprise to see the Lords Economic Affairs Committee adopt such an interest in its inquiry into further, higher and vocational education.
The oral evidence sessions for this committee have been gathering pace, and after hearing from the government and the new regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), it was now the turn of institutional leaders. I was delighted to have been called in last week to give evidence that a different approach was necessary when talking about older learners and part-time students.
It was clear that the committee had already seen this as an area of interest given its previous questions to “money-saving expert” Martin Lewis and former higher education minister Lord Willetts.
In an opening question, Lord Burns, the former Treasury permanent secretary, asked if there was sufficient diversity in the UK higher education system. I told the committee that it was clear that the higher education sector had become more homogenised over the past 20 years, and that we were seeing rapid increases of young entrants (under 21s) in contrast to the 50 per cent decline in part-time students since 2010.
There are some structural issues why this is the case.
First, the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012 saw part-time students (who are mainly older and local) deterred in a way that younger students were not. Part-time study was now seen as a riskier prospect than it had been before. This has had a knock-on effect, not only on those without a first degree, but also on those who wish to retrain at a similar or lower level due to the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) reforms, which cut funding for students taking second qualifications at an equal or lower level to those they already hold.
The largest fall in part-time study has been in non-bachelor’s degree higher education qualifications (such as certificates of higher education, diplomas and foundation degrees), which are the qualifications that people need and their employers are seeking. While we welcome the exemptions to the ELQ policy (would-be engineering, computing sciences and technology students can apply for part-time student support regardless of existing qualifications), there still needs to be a much broader approach to skills.
For example, what does the Tech City start-up graduate do if they want to learn advanced business skills to grow their business? After all, they may already have a STEM-based degree, and so would not get fee or loan support to study for a foundation degree in management. We know that STEM qualifications offer a good return to the taxpayer and the individual, and so too do law, economics and management subjects. It would be a real help to see these subjects exempt from ELQ restrictions, too.
Second, the inflexibility of the student loan system has been problematic. At the inquiry, Lord Sharkey asked if we were happy with the current system of student loans, and if it was sufficiently progressive.
Well, this of course depends on who the student is. At present, part-time higher education students are not eligible for maintenance grants or loans. This has pushed learners into studying full time purely out of the need to gain eligibility for support rather than in pursuit of the best possible educational outcome.
Part-time maintenance loans are due to come in next academic year, which should see a shift from full-time to part-time; however, we don’t yet know if the move will boost overall recruitment numbers. This will be the real test.
A further inequity for part-time students taking out a loan is that they can often still be working and paying back their loan before they have finished their course. Part-time fee loans must be repaid four years from the start of their course, but many students can take up to six years to complete. This cannot be right.
Finally, through the course of this inquiry I hope that their Lordships continue to ask questions of institutions and officials alike over part-time study. This is one area in which Lord Willetts has himself acknowledged that he thought loan behaviour would be similar to that of full-timers but may now need a different approach in the future.
We look to the Lords Economic Affairs Committee to help us in that task and to help remedy some of the very clear problems that exist for part-time learners.
David Latchman is master of Birkbeck, University of London, which specialises in evening courses.