How is denying people a life-changing second chance in any way fair?

Through lifelong learning cuts, the Government's ELQ policy hurts those who most need access and opportunity, says Tom Sperlinger

April 2, 2009

The Government's rationale for the withdrawal of funding for students studying for an ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification degree to the one they hold) was "fairness" - a desire to give more students the opportunity to gain a first degree. I have sympathy for this impulse. Too many people still feel that universities are remote from their lives.

But as a result of this policy, lifelong learning programmes across the country are closing. The Government has undermined provision that would have helped achieve its aim and has disadvantaged those it wished to support. At the University of Bristol, the infrastructure that is being eroded is irreplaceable. We are losing evening courses in drama, history of art, history, music, philosophy and theology, which allowed those who could not study in any other mode to gain a qualification. Perhaps saddest of all is the loss of short courses such as Ways Into Music, which was designed specifically to enable those with little or no experience in education to progress to a degree.

Typical of the courses to be cut is our diploma in creative writing. Only 39 per cent of current students do not fall foul of the ELQ ruling, rendering it financially unsustainable. Yet 39 per cent of the same students are from neighbourhoods where there is "low participation" in higher education. This figure is replicated on other courses, and it can rise to as high as 55 per cent. Bristol's university-wide target for recruiting full-time undergraduates from the same neighbourhoods is 7 per cent, which it is struggling to meet in spite of vigorous efforts. The national figure is 9 per cent. A subtler funding approach may have strengthened lifelong learning or allowed departments to do more for students without qualifications. The ELQ policy, in contrast, is destroying mechanisms that widen access. As a consequence, even if there is an increase in the number of students who gain a degree, the range of students who go to university will be narrower.

There will be other losses, too. I love the fact that the people attending our courses can include, say, a doctor, a businesswoman who did not go to university and a chef who left school at 16, all equally beginners in a new subject. Lifelong learning within universities creates social equality and community. Education, like sport, should not be available only to those who practise it professionally or to each person for a limited time. It is vital to social, community and individual wellbeing. The Government's White Paper The Learning Revolution acknowledges such principles. But its aims, particularly in connecting informal and formal learning opportunities, cannot be achieved while the ELQ policy continues to destroy lifelong learning courses, which have always bridged that divide.

A degree is no guide to how much one may need education at a later date, as the current economic climate has made painfully clear. Many of Britain's two million unemployed have qualifications but need to retrain or a place to rethink; evidence has suggested that a large number are women, who are more vulnerable to the removal of ELQ funding. The Government exempted foundation degrees and other qualifications that were deemed sufficiently vocational. But the emphasis of those exemptions is too narrow and too dependent on employer support, and so may not help those who are out of work.

Two years ago, I spoke to a student who was doing a short access course at Bristol but was struggling to persuade herself and her family of the value of a degree. She already had a career and felt that she ought to be doing something vocational. "Why don't you?" I asked. "Oh, I've started several courses related to my work," she replied, "but I never finish them - they don't hold my interest." She is now midway through a part-time English degree, and her career is developing significantly as a result. Education can have an impact only if it speaks to students' varied outer and rich inner lives, as well as to their material needs. Some vocational courses can do this, but I have come across countless people who have restarted their career or taken it in a new direction as a result of a (short or long) non-vocational course. The value of such learning should be recognised.

When I wrote to my MP about the cuts in Bristol, I received a reply from David Lammy, the Minister for Higher Education, who said that he was "sorry to hear about" them but could "assure" me "that nationally the position is different". The evidence of the past few weeks shows that this is not the case. Even where provision has survived, it is vulnerable. If the Government is serious about its aspirations to make universities widely accessible and to give new strength to adult education, it needs to reinstate the ELQ funding or redirect it in imaginative ways that support lifelong learning. Either way, action must be taken now - it is nearly too late.

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