Leader: Support for second chances

'Upskilling' is a noble aim of the main parties, but to achieve it, we must remove the financial barriers to part-time study

June 10, 2010

Business secretary Vince Cable is already making his predecessor look like a pussycat. He has attacked vice-chancellors on pay and reportedly wants to chop university places. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron is warning of years of pain ahead. You don't have to be Mystic Meg to see that the signs are not good for higher education in the emergency Budget on 22 June.

The attack is a clever move by Mr Cable. Vice-chancellors in effect will be neutralised and will find it difficult to argue against funding cuts. As one has said, any criticism from them will be met with a "fat cats complaining" defence. A big tuition-fee increase when Lord Browne reports back won't find too many objectors either if the coffers are low. And calling for a debate on expansion versus quality is a nice pre-emptive strike ahead of the A-level results, when record numbers of students will be left without places.

In such times, it's easy to forget that not all students are 18-year-old full-timers, and nor should they be. The Leitch report suggested, and the main parties have endorsed, the notion that it is essential for the UK's economic health and global competitiveness that more adults are "upskilled". To do this, we must remove the barriers to part-time study. As our cover story demonstrates, that change is long overdue.

Throughout the Browne review, one of the key messages has been that higher education must remain "free at the point of use", even if fees rise. In other words, all students must have access to loans or financial support that cover the cost of their fees.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for part-timers, who have no access to loans and have to pay their fees upfront. The hypothesis behind the system of support for them is that their living costs will be met by their earnings, with fees paid by their employers.

But Futuretrack, a study funded by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit, shows that not only is financial support for part-time students inadequate, but the entire assumption underpinning government policy is also flawed.

Some 41 per cent of part-time students receive financial help from their employers, but most are from better-off households. It seems that "relying on business contributions for part-time study puts its 'fairness' in jeopardy", says Mike Hill, Hecsu's chief executive.

On top of this, the rules that decide government funding for part-timers are arbitrary. Only a small proportion get aid and often it is not enough. Moreover, the problem extends to the fiendishly complicated rules on other forms of state support (the National Union of Students' handbook on the subject runs to 300 pages).

Students can find themselves financially disadvantaged if they choose part-time study. Full-timers can apply for support well before their courses start, whereas part-time funding applications cannot be submitted until courses have begun. And while full-timers can apply online directly to Student Finance England, part-timers have to complete an onerous paper exercise. The system must be made simpler.

With work and family commitments, adults need flexibility in their study patterns, which is why so many opt to go part time. All that most of these students want is to improve their lot in life. If we want to see more social mobility, surely we must do all we can to give people a second chance?


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