As a UK-wide organisation that champions learners from under-represented groups, especially mature students, the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning welcomes many aspects of the White Paper. However, given that increasing opportunities for mature and part-time students will be critical in addressing the productivity gap, we at UALL believe that the White Paper could have gone further to balance the heavy emphasis on the experience of young full-time undergraduates.
The statutory duty of the Office for Students to include equality of opportunity for disadvantaged students has the potential to result in better educational and post-educational experiences for students from all backgrounds. UALL also welcomes the introduction of degree apprenticeships and flexible approaches to higher education to provide opportunities for those where a full-time traditional degree is impracticable. These proposals, together with the extension of the postgraduate loan to those over 30 years old, should go some way in supporting adult learners to consider higher education as an option.
However, we would like to see much greater acknowledgement that the continued downward demographic trend of 18-year-olds means that there will be insufficient numbers of young graduates and apprentices emerging from the system to fill the identified skills gaps in a timely way. Adults already in the workforce need to be encouraged and supported to access opportunities to increase their skills, if the demands of a high-skill economy are to be met. The Leitch Report in 2006 made this abundantly clear, yet policy has not really changed; arguably, with the introduction of higher tuition fees, it has worsened. Indeed, the catastrophic decline in part-time study is testament to this, but research into its causes has shown that it is largely opportunity, rather than demand, that is declining. Many adults seek part-time or flexible routes to higher-level qualifications because full-time study is simply not an option for them, but financial barriers and inflexible structures limit their chances.
The implementation of the White Paper provides the opportunity to build on its positive aspects and address the needs of adults, the economy and wider society. We hope that the government will seize this opportunity, and we are keen to explore strategies for addressing the crisis in adult learning.
UALL chair and vice-chancellor, Bishop Grosseteste University