Earning and learning in a land of opportunity

September 3, 1999

In the fifth of our summer series on education at the end of the century, Andrew Pakes says opportunities for learning are greater than ever

Gone are the days when universities were the boarding schools of the privileged, when an affluent elite of just one in 20 young people went to university. Time has moved on. The traditional student is dead. At the end of the 20th century the overriding change is the expansion of opportunity. The conveyor belt mentality of school-studied A levels, followed by a three-year, full-time degree, followed by a job for life is long gone. Lifelong learning, for all the rhetoric, is a reality, even if no one can quite agree on its definition.

The best way to consider lifelong learning is from the flip side of the coin. Increasingly people are earning and learning. More than 40 per cent of full-time students work part-time -often more than 15 hours a week, for low pay, in unsafe conditions. Part-time students have always earned and learned because they have always had tuition fees to pay, but their learning has also increasingly become marked by opportunity. New technology is increasing opportunity in distance and part-time learning in a way that we could not have imagined in the 1960s. We need flexible ways to study: in bite-size pieces and in ways that complement and enhance our lives outside education. The distinction between workers who are learning and learners who are working is now increasingly blurred.

Most students today are over 25 years old. They increasingly study part-time and the overwhelming majority do so in the further education sector. And of those 18 to 21-year-olds who do study full-time undergraduate courses there is a much higher representation of non-traditional groups - one in three young people now go to university. By 2010, 70 per cent will go and neither maintenance funding by total loans or a return to "boarding school" grants will be able to deliver enough money into their pockets. A mixed system of funding - where the very poorest students are reincorporated into society's safety net, giving them access to individual means tested benefits - will be the only way to achieve the necessary funding.

Expansion of opportunity has meant increasing access to a world of learning previously denied to so many people. But with expansion has come the charge of "dumbing-down". The term is offensive - it suggests that more learning means lower standards, that the drive for higher standards cannot be fused together with the quest to improve access. More learning means broader and wider learning and more universities that see themselves as learning generators, not learning museums. More learning means the ability to respond to the external demands of life beyond the campus.

The National Union of Students continues to represent students as students and the modernisation of our democratic structures and our campaign tactics must continue into the next millennium. But the union does not have the resources to represent students in the workplace, where they desperately need representation.

Workers under 25 are twice as likely to have temporary jobs. They are almost four times as likely to stay in their current job for less than six months. Yet workers under 25 are half as likely as their older colleagues to hold a union card. Mature students seem to be wise to the need for trade union membership. The NUS is working with the TUC to convey to all students the need for representation in the workplace. Just as the post-16 education sector has changed, the world of work has also changed. Student workers are at the cutting edge of these changes. Not only do they have a huge presence in the manual work of highstreet household names, but also in many of the "new" industries of the late 20th century - call centres, IT support and software companies, design and online services.

Following two decades of attacks on employment and trade union rights, student workers stand to benefit more than any other group from the government's Fairness at Work agenda. The legislation is not perfect. NUS is especially concerned about the age-based Pounds 3-an-hour development rate of the national minimum wage and the exclusion of small firms from statutory procedures for union recognition. To raise awareness of rights at work, NUS is using postcards and posters to promote the TUC's Know Your Rights information line. This is the future of representation for students as workers.

The representation of students as students has also changed. Many in the sector have been surprised at NUS's support for recent industrial action by the Association of University Teachers and its support of both Natfhe and the AUT's call for improved wages. Earlier in the century the student movement viewed the relationship between lecturers and students very much in oppositional terms. However, the long-term benefits for students of having properly paid and well-motivated staff are now appreciated by fee-paying students.

Despite NUS's continued opposition to tuition fees, they are now a reality for most students. Overseas and part-time undergraduates, as well as postgraduate students, have always had to pay and now two-thirds of full-time undergraduates do too. NUS's student-rights agenda has been and will be very much informed by this reality.

One example of this is our work on lobbying the Institute of Learning and Teaching, one of the most positive things to come out of the Dearing report. NUS has been urging the ILT to ensure minimum professional standards right across the sector. Many of our membership do not fully understand what the ILT is or what it promises to do. But with a credible accreditation standard and mass participation from academics it will make a real difference to the educational experience of all higher education students.

Can you imagine the NUS of the 1960s intellectually engaging itself with such an issue? The world has changed. It is time to put away the historical baggage of the late 20th century and look to the next 100 years.

Andrew Pakes is president of the National Union of Students.

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