Flexible study emerges as cross-party concern

Help for non-traditional learning wins support, with Greg Clark saying ‘watch this space’

March 5, 2015

Source: Eleanor Bentall

Votes please: audience members predicted another coalition government

Government proposals on accelerated and “flexible” degrees in response to the collapse in part-time study are set to be put forward in the coming weeks, Greg Clark has suggested.

The universities, science and cities minister hinted at the new measures during election hustings on 2 March hosted by Times Higher Education, Universities UK, the Open University and the Higher Education Policy Institute, where topics ranging from tuition fees (see box here) to academic freedom were tackled by representatives of the three main political parties.

Mr Clark was responding to a question from Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, who highlighted how the number of part-time and mature students had dropped in recent years, and how England lagged behind its competitors on the provision of accelerated honours degrees.

The minister said that he had established a review to examine what lay behind the reduction in part-time study and to devise potential solutions. He added: “When it comes to…short-form and flexible degrees, there is a lot to be said about that and a lot more to be done about it; and if I can say ‘watch this space’ in the weeks ahead, we may have some more proposals to share on that.”

Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, said he believed that the growth in higher education provision had to come from “earn while you learn” places, with more professional and vocational paths to a degree-level qualification sitting alongside traditional academic routes.

Achieving this meant ending competition between higher education and further education institutions and joining the two sectors “back together again”, he added. This could entail a “radical increase” in the number of courses delivered at further education colleges that act as a “springboard” to higher education, “a bit like the American community college partnership model that has worked so successfully for so long”.

Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrats’ science spokesman, backed the idea of allowing students to transfer academic credits between universities or from further to higher education institutions.

“The idea that your learning follows you…is a really interesting one that will fit quite well with the development of Moocs and needs to be taken a lot, lot further,” he said.

Science security

On science and research, Mr Clark insisted that the dual-support system, which combines grants from research councils with quality-related funding passed directly to institutions, was “absolutely central to our excellence and will continue” despite recent speculation that it could suffer in any future spending review.

Social sciences and the arts and humanities would not be marginalised at the expense of science, he added.

Stressing the need for stability, Mr Byrne argued that a “long-term framework” was required for revenue as well as for capital funding, warning that, after “five years of ministerial shiny project syndrome”, institutions might not be able to afford to “keep the lights on” in new buildings.

All three MPs also expressed concern about perceived restrictions on freedom of speech in universities, with Mr Huppert claiming that it was “completely unacceptable” to “no platform” speakers who said things people did not like.

At the end of the event, a straw poll indicated that audience members felt Mr Byrne had performed most strongly. But when asked who would win the next election, the audience’s response was much more mixed, with another coalition being widely predicted.


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