The sands must shift to flexible learning in coastal communities

Where you live should not limit your educational aspirations, says Ian Fribbance 

April 20, 2019
English sea side town

As summer starts to sneak towards us, seaside towns will be preparing for the busy season when they’ll be full of tourists visiting the coast for their fix of fresh sea air and fish and chips. But this flurry of activity can disguise the fact that, sometimes, living in a coastal community can be an isolating experience and for some can even constrain their educational aspirations.

The regeneration of seaside towns has been under debate in Westminster, and one part of the resulting select committee on regenerating seaside towns and communities’ report scrutinises the education and skills of people living in coastal areas. Low educational attainment is a persistent problem in many seaside communities – and we know that this, in turn, restricts social mobility and stops people from reaching their potential. Worse, there has been a staggering 27 per cent decline in the number of people from coastal communities in England accessing higher education since the funding reforms of 2012, when tuition fees trebled to £9,000. This is a significant decline and cannot be ignored.

I believe that where you live should not limit the level of education that you can achieve.

Coastal communities face specific challenges, not least the fact that many are far from a traditional university. But distance should not be a barrier. The Open University has been the way that many people in these areas have gained a degree, through flexible, part-time distance learning.

Given that 90 per cent of that decline in numbers accessing higher education is directly attributable to the collapse in part-time study since the 2012 changes, it’s clear that a solution is needed urgently to allow those living in coastal towns to regenerate their own careers and employment skills.

Flexible learning, with a lot of study completed online and the possibility to work while studying, can play a crucial role in helping people from coastal communities upskill, particularly in more rural areas.

We know that some employers in seaside towns are already keen on upskilling. “Growing your own” staff is an effective way to develop talent and fill roles. The NHS is one employer that is already well established in working this way. In the Isle of Wight and Cornwall, for example, the OU works in partnership to deliver training programmes, which means that NHS Trusts can develop nurses from other categories of staff. In practice, this means that an employee such as a healthcare assistant with the drive and ambition to become a nurse, who may have family or property ties that prevent them moving, can remain in their home town and yet still get on a pathway to turn that hope into a reality. It means that people don’t have to leave to learn and can support wider regeneration efforts.

A practice where universities work in partnership with colleges and businesses in coastal communities could be a catalyst for regeneration in these areas. It would open access to local apprenticeships, develop entrepreneurial skills and give people the chance to pursue higher education. Creating a talent pipeline would serve local industries and entrepreneurs. We know that students who stay in place to study flexibly while working are more likely to remain in the local area and implement their new skills and knowledge. This brings rich rewards for local employers and the local economy.

I was glad to read that the select committee’s report agreed with my key point that we can never expect a bricks-and-mortar offering of higher education in every coastal town. But there is a real solution for bringing higher education to the coast. There is huge scope to develop flexible access via the online, part-time learning model so that people don’t need to leave to learn. Giving people aspiration through access is a key way to bring more vibrancy to these seaside areas – whatever the season.

Ian Fribbance is executive dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at The Open University.

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