Searching for solid ground

Aftershocks following the austerity reforms of 2010 are still being felt, with mature students particularly hard hit

November 6, 2014

It is four years – almost to the day – since a group of protesters splintered away from the tens of thousands who were marching through London to demonstrate against the rise in university tuition fees and forced their way into the Millbank tower that serves as Conservative Party HQ.

The vote on the fee reforms had yet to happen, and the intensity of the demonstration seemed to take the authorities by surprise.

Although the storming of the building was denounced, and prosecutions ensued, the pictures of people smashing their way into the tower, and of a fire extinguisher being thrown from the roof narrowly missing police officers 33 floors below, came to symbolise the depth of anger.

As we approach the end of the Parliament, the higher education reforms – like the protests they triggered – remain among the most dramatic manifestations of the government’s austerity programme.

The fate of part-time study and lifelong learning is a widening participation issue too

Four years on and the fire and brimstone of the demos seem an age ago, but we are still in the thick of dealing with the ramifications of the decision taken by Parliament in the winter of 2010.

Take, for example, the decline in the number of mature students, which is examined in our cover feature this week. In 2008-09, there were more first-year undergraduates aged 21 or over than there were of school-leaver age (450,000 versus 380,000). By 2012-13, however, the number of mature students starting university courses had fallen by 150,000. There are a number of factors behind the decline, including the earlier introduction of fees and the decision not to fund students with equivalent or lower-level qualifications, but the decisions taken in 2010 have piled on yet more pressure.

Politicians have made much of the strength of university applications following the funding overhaul, and in particular applications from poorer students, which many feared would be hardest hit.

But that’s not the whole story. The focus on 18-year-old, first-time undergraduates has been coupled with a lack of attention on older students, many of whom study part time and so miss out on key financial support.

Perhaps they’re an easy group to ignore – the public perception can be a cliché of the middle-class retiree studying to keep themselves busy. But the reality is often very different, and there’s no doubt that the fate of part-time study and lifelong learning is an issue of widening participation too.

Also in our features pages this week, we revisit the tumultuous autumn and winter of 2010 through the eyes of someone who was at the heart of the policymaking machine: Sir Steve Smith.

In an in-depth interview, the University of Exeter vice-chancellor (who was president of Universities UK at the time of the reforms) talks candidly about the choices that he and the sector faced.

He gives his assessment of the decision-making process and the compromises that were (and, as he sees it, had to be) made, but is also clear that we are still dealing with the fallout.

Asked about the current turbulence in universities’ leadership, Smith says: “My honest view is that it’s all down to the marketisation…Everyone is trying to work out which way is up.”

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