A partial solution to widening the skills base

September 14, 2007

Moves to educate the workforce will not succeed without better support for part-timers, argues David Latchman

A cynic might suggest that the name of the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills indicates that universities are no longer about education but are seen solely as engines to deliver innovation and skills. In any case, no serious observer can doubt the Government's commitment to the skills agenda. This has been indicated by the target, set in the report by Lord Leitch, that 40 per cent of the workforce should have a university-level education by 2020.

But unlike the previous target of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds going to university, the Leitch target cannot be delivered by increasing the number of 18-year-olds following conventional three-year full-time degrees. Indeed, 70 per cent of those who will be in work in 2020 have already completed their full-time education. Moreover, the demographic changes in the next few years will see a drop in the pool of 18-year-olds.

Implicit in the Leitch target, therefore, is the need for part-time study by those in work or seeking employment. Yet paradoxically, financial support for such students and the universities that teach them is much worse than for those who want to study full time.

This represents a significant barrier to the achievement of the target.

The Government will argue, of course, that support for part-time students is better than ever before. This is true but reflects a history of total neglect for such individuals - support remains considerably inferior to that offered to full-time students. For example, no loans are available to part-timers, who must pay their fees upfront (although at some universities, such as Birkbeck, fees can be paid monthly by direct debit). While means-tested fee rebates are available, they are not applicable to students who are studying less than 50 per cent of full time, even though such an intensity of study may be most appealing to those in full-time employment or dipping a toe in the water of higher education.

Similarly, students who already have a first degree are ineligible even though they may be re-skilling and taking a more vocationally related subject.

Most important, the maximum fee rebate for the poorest students is capped well below pro-rata to the full-time fee and this limits the amount universities can charge for part-time courses.

One might think that the Higher Education Funding Council for England would step in to make up the difference but the reverse is true. Part-time students attract a 10 per cent premium in the Hefce teaching grant but costs can be as much as 40 per cent more. Moreover, the Government has now instructed Hefce not to fund universities for the (predominantly part-time) undergraduates who already have a first degree in another subject.

Under these circumstances, it may be that universities that can readily recruit enough full-time students will move away from offering part-time courses, particularly if the cap on fees is lifted. This would leave part-time study as the preserve of a few resource-limited specialist institutions and others that cannot compete in recruiting enough full-time students. It is hardly the best way to improve workforce skills.

The solution being espoused is apparently simple: persuade employers to pay. So Hefce has introduced a scheme whereby student places will be co-funded by employers rather than being fully funded by Hefce. It would be interesting to know how many employers understand correctly that this means them paying all the fees plus half the normal Hefce grant.

Moreover, this system assumes an idyllic world in which the interests of the employer and the employee are coincident. This will not be the case if employees are studying to change career or improve their prospects elsewhere.

Indeed, at Birkbeck, many students will not tell us who their employer is, let alone ask them for sponsorship, for this reason. Yet these are precisely the students who are working the hardest to improve their skills, with no employer support and little from the Government.

So what is the real solution? As a July House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills report recommended: "Students should be seen as one group with a variety of needs for support rather than being arbitrarily divided into... part-time and full-time."

This is the ideal solution, but resourcing it will take time. In the meantime, we need to give employers incentives to support employees - but recognise that this will not occur in many cases.

Means-tested fee rebates should be extended to all students, regardless of past study history and intensity of study, and the cap on such rebates should be at a level pro rata to the full-time fee.

In addition, universities with part-time students need to be resourced properly, to encourage expansion of their provision and enable them to achieve the ambitious but vital target set by Leitch.

David Latchman is master of Birkbeck, University of London.

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