Lifelong learning at heart of debate

April 28, 1995

It is indeed rare to hear the voices of part-time students, and pleasing to see an editorial in The THES (April 21) paying explicit attention to them, now that they constitute more than 40 per cent of the student body. However, when you identify the purpose of a modular system as making higher education more flexible, "particularly for those unable to do a traditional full-time degree", you reveal our underlying difficulty, that part-time study is still widely viewed as a poor substitute for a "proper" degree.

Twenty-five years ago, when most current policy-makers and senior academics were beginning their careers, our higher education system still served as an apprentice school for budding academics, and a finishing school for the bright white sons of a particular social elite (and sometimes their sisters). Despite the transformation which has happened since, our collective notion of what higher education is remains rooted in the processes which met those needs.

Simple demography indicates that in future most students will be "non-traditional". They will be studying part-time, not because they "cannot" do it full time, but because, in a world of lifelong learning, that is the most appropriate way. As the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education pointed out last year in An Adult Higher Education, we have yet to produce an adequate definition of what we mean by "higher education", when half the population participate at some stage of their lives, and only a minority do so on a full-time three-year basis. Yet this is the question at the heart of our debates on quality and purpose. It is time we turned our minds to it more seriously .

STEPHEN MCNAIR

Associate Director (Higher Education), NIACE

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