We are at a rare moment in politics where the concerns of students have been thrust to the forefront of national debate.
I welcome the prime minister’s review of university funding because, amid the sound and fury of party politics, the real casualty of the 2012 higher education shake-up has gone largely unnoticed – the impact on the economy and society of the decline in mature and part-time learners.
It is no exaggeration to say that “earning while learning” is in crisis in England. The roots lie in Labour’s reforms, but the accelerator was the UK coalition government’s decision to slash grants and treble student tuition fees. In the past six years, numbers of new part-time students in England have fallen by an extraordinary 56 per cent.
I was impressed by some of the arguments made by Theresa May in her Conservative Party conference speech, but I disagree with her on where the focus of funding reform should be.
May said that the state should intervene where the free market was “broken”. Yes. And she said that students are required to “take on a huge amount of debt”. Yes.
But the market that is most clearly broken is part-time and adult learning in England, not that for younger full-time students, which is booming. And the students who have been most deterred from study by that huge potential debt are not “young students” whom the prime minister championed, but older, especially disadvantaged students.
Figures for full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university have risen by a welcome 7 per cent since higher fees. But that increase is dwarfed by a simultaneous 47 per cent fall in part-time students from those same areas. So the overall number from deprived areas entering higher education in England is down 15 per cent on 2011-12.
If Jeremy Corbyn had been more precise in his general election campaign claims, fact checkers and Conservative critics might have found it more difficult to attack him. Jeremy, don’t say, “Higher fees have put young people from deprived backgrounds off studying at university”; do say, “Higher fees have put people from deprived backgrounds off studying at university.”
The reasons for the decline are easy to understand if you know part-time students. They are not a homogenous group. They are people in work, with family responsibilities, mortgages and competing demands on their time; many have disabilities that mean that they can study only through part-time distance learning.
Or they are people in work who want a new high-quality skill to improve their circumstances. But they can’t get a government loan for a short course and can’t afford to fund themselves. People such as these think far harder than younger students before taking on debt, so high fees and inflexible loans rules are a major barrier.
The clearest evidence that affordability has hit the English part-time market comes from Scotland, which has not experienced the same funding changes. There, Open University student numbers have been stable, while England’s have plummeted – the OU has more than twice the number of students per head of population in Scotland than it does in England. That means that Scotland’s businesses get better access to workers who have improved their skills than those in England.
No wonder that business leaders from the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce have all told me that they are desperate to tackle the skills of the existing workforce, including through part-time higher education study.
So why, given the clear business need to let workers earn and learn, is the political will to tackle this lagging? Partly, this is because too many politicians and commentators are conditioned by their own experience of full-time university. But, even after the fall in part-time, only 42 per cent of higher education study in England involves 18- and 19-year-olds studying full-time.
There should be no political embarrassment in fixing a system that is broken, and there should be minimal political cost for changing tack on this aspect.
There is no shortage of potential solutions. The Taylor Review, Bright Blue, the Higher Education Policy Institute, Universities UK, the University Alliance, the Learning and Work Institute, the Association of Colleges, the National Union of Students, the CBI, the IoD and the HE Commission – to name a few – have produced a torrent of practical and cost-effective suggestions. In coming weeks, the OU will be cooperating with business, the NUS, further education colleges and other higher education institutions committed to part-time study to develop and promote these ideas to the funding review. If you’d like to get involved, please contact me.
Peter Horrocks is vice-chancellor of the Open University. This post originally appeared on the Universities UK blog.