ELQ relaxation is good but part-timers need more aid and support

David Latchman welcomes reforms for restoring funding for some upskilling students, but argues the government should go further

October 10, 2013

Source: Paul Bateman

The impact of the change will be significant, but it would be even greater if loans were available for all part-time ELQ students

Six years ago, a policy introduced by the Labour government caused Birkbeck, University of London, to lose 40 per cent of its teaching funding overnight. The so-called “ELQ [equivalent or lower qualifications] rule” cut funding for higher education students taking second qualifications at an equal or lower level to those they already hold.

As a specialist provider of evening higher education, we were profoundly affected and had to completely reorganise our undergraduate provision. There was an immediate drop in the number of ELQ students as we were forced to raise fees. Over time we have had to recruit other students to make up the shortfall.

Our decisive action and short-term government safety net funding has enabled us to survive and thrive. But the introduction of higher fees for undergraduate students in England last year and the decision to exclude most ELQ students from access to government loans has made the situation worse: if students could not afford the fees in 2007, they certainly cannot afford the recent threefold increase.

Because we continue to believe in the importance of working people being able to “upskill” and re-skill later in life, we have campaigned for more ELQ students to have access to loans. That is why I applaud David Willetts, the universities and science minister, for announcing at the Conservative Party conference that the ELQ rule will be relaxed for part- time students studying engineering, technology and computer science. It is commendable that he is taking action to amend a policy he (and many others) criticised in opposition.

The impact of the change will be significant, but it would be even greater if loans were available for all part-time ELQ students.

By extending loan eligibility to a small proportion of part-time students, the government is creating a two-tier system under which some part-time graduates can access loans and others cannot. This will lead to uncertainty and confusion, exacerbating difficulties already associated with the loan system that have undoubtedly deterred prospective part-time students after the increase in undergraduate tuition fees in England.

I appreciate the initial expense of providing such loans. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the exemption of part-time engineering, technology and computer science courses from the ELQ policy will cost approximately £5 million in loan outlay in 2015-16. If the government cannot afford to lift all the ELQ restrictions for part-time students, it should consider lifting restrictions for part-time students studying vocational subjects such as education, architecture, psychology, business, law and catering. Promisingly, speaking to Times Higher Education at the conference, Willetts indicated that he would like to “go further, step by step” in dismantling the ELQ policy (“Willetts looks to dismantle the funding bar on ELQ”, News, 3 October).

It is obvious that real momentum is now developing behind part-time higher education. Many influential groups and commentators have recently championed the cause and made commitments to help safeguard the future of part-time higher education at a time of change and challenge. In May, the “Part Time Matters” campaign was launched by a cross-sector group of organisations, including Birkbeck, to promote the benefits of part-time study. In the same month, an Early Day Motion recognising the “vital role of adult learning” and its “transformative effect”, including on social mobility, was tabled in the House of Commons, and it has been signed by 66 MPs. In July, the CBI backed more “learn-while-you-earn” schemes and stronger relationships between universities and businesses in its blueprint for higher skills. Over the summer the Office for Fair Access made part-time higher education a focus for future work, while Ucas launched a new web presence to signpost students to part-time provision, and the Higher Education Academy published a report on part-time pedagogies. Last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute produced an analysis of the impact of the government’s reforms of higher education, including the first evidence on part-time demand, and next week Universities UK is due to publish its review of part-time and mature higher education.

Underpinning all these recent interventions are compelling arguments that demonstrate the clear benefits of part-time study for the economy, employers, society and individuals. Recent research highlights how levels of employment stability are particularly high for part-time students, with 81 per cent working throughout their study and two years later. Graduates said part-time study helped them develop as a person (88 per cent), improve self-confidence (78 per cent) and increase their overall happiness (55 per cent), according to the Futuretrack study by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit. Employers also value part-time study as a good model to develop work-readiness in graduates and in providing existing employees with the skills and know-ledge to improve productivity and efficiency.

Now is the time to congratulate the government on its efforts so far - but also to encourage it to go further.

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