Browne's plans to support part-timers do not mesh with reality, vice-chancellor claims

Fear that universities may have to restructure courses to fit new system. Simon Baker reports

November 4, 2010

Proposals hailed as a breakthrough for part-time students, giving them access to the same financial support as their full-time peers, may be crucially flawed.

David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, University of London, said that while he welcomed the aim of Lord Browne of Madingley's proposals to extend loan support for part-timers, the details set out in his review did not "mesh" with the reality of study.

Unless the plans are changed, providers such as Birkbeck and The Open University may be forced to restructure their courses to fit with the new support system, he said.

The Browne Review calls for fee loans for part-time students to be made available when their "learning intensity" hits 33 per cent of a full-time course - with a maximum period of state support being nine years.

It even says that this is a "simpler measure" than a 30 per cent threshold - the level above which evidence suggests students are more likely to complete degrees - "as it can be readily translated into an equivalent number of modules of study".

However, Professor Latchman said that 33 per cent was a "relatively arbitrary" figure that bore little resemblance to the reality of a typical part-time course structure.

Most part-time students tend to study modules worth 15 or 30 credits with 120 representing a whole year. Currently, part-timers are eligible for support if they study 60 credits - 50 per cent intensity - but there is no combination of modules that would amount to the 33 per cent Browne recommends.

Professor Latchman said: "It is great that they recognise that people at that level are studying seriously and should be supported, but the precise level doesn't actually mesh very well with the logic of what people study. The reality is that there are people studying at a quarter (intensity) and people studying at more than a third.

"We would want it to go down to 25 per cent, which is what we said in our joint submission to Browne with The Open University, because that made sense as students are studying courses that carry 30 credits."

He said that if Browne's exact proposals were implemented there would be a case for Birkbeck and others to modify modules so they fitted the new structure and students could qualify for support.

"I think we would have to look at our common awards structure. If you were in a situation where a particular course didn't qualify, and without damaging its pedagogy you could tweak it so it did qualify, you would have to think about tweaking it because you owe that to the students."

Professor Latchman added that it was "not as simple as saying let's just do it to get the money" and he maintained it "would be a great deal better" if the government looked to implement proposals that fitted the system.

He also said that the previous government's decision to stop public funding for students taking second degrees - known as equivalent or lower-level qualifications (ELQs) - would become irrelevant after the huge cuts to the teaching grant.

"I don't think there can be any justification for charging a higher fee to ELQ students if you don't have any teaching grant. The next stage of that is, do you allow the ELQ students to have the loan on the same basis as others?" Professor Latchman said.

The Open University's vice-chancellor, Martin Bean, who also called for fee support to be set at 25 per cent intensity, said there was no proposal in Browne that ELQ students should be discriminated against.

"My expectation is that in the new regime it shouldn't really matter if you are an ELQ student or not. Nobody has said anything to contradict this and we hope that the attitude of the coalition government towards ELQ will reflect this," he said.

simon.baker@tsleducation.com.

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