MINISTERS have urged the National Advisory Group for lifelong learning to take on board research that supports extending loans to part-time students.
The group, which met this week to discuss its advice to civil servants drafting the Lifelong Learning white paper, has been asked to consider a report which claims offering loans to part-timers would increase the short-term cost of higher education by 0.5 per cent.
The report on research by consultants London Economics and commissioned by the Open University, says extending loans to part-time students earning less than Pounds 10,000 a year would add Pounds 31 million to the loans bill next year. The sum is small compared with an estimated Pounds 7.75 billion needed to fund government proposals for higher education.
In the long term, loans for part-timers in this bracket would cost the public purse Pounds 147 million more than planned, an increase of 1.5 per cent.
OU heads presented the findings on Tuesday to Kim Howells, lifelong learning minister. Geoff Peters, OU pro vice chancellor, said the minister told him the National Advisory Group had been asked to build the London Economics model into its conclusions.
"His view was that it was exactly what the government would hope for from the loans scheme - that it would present the opportunity to widen access," Mr Peters said.
The National Advisory Group will have to act quickly if it is to alter its recommendations. Chairman Bob Fryer reports to education secretary David Blunkett next week. The group's advice is needed in time for publication of the white paper next month or early December. Recommendations affecting schools risk missing the first reading of the Education Bill next month.
The OU says extending loans to part-timers would help an extra 500,000 students.
It commissioned the research to counter suggestions in the Dearing higher education report that extending loans to part-timers would add significantly to costs and risked substituting public money for support from employers.
London Economics, which modelled various support schemes for full-time students for the Dearing committee, found that only one in three of all part-time undergraduates get any help with tuition fees from employers, rather than eight out of ten as suggested in the Dearing report.
The findings are likely to be welcomed by key members of the National Advisory Group, who were disappointed with Dearing's recommendation that loans should not be extended to part-timers.
Bob Fryer told a seminar supported by The THES this week that the Dearing report lacked vision and "did not take seriously the challenge of creating a learning society".
"The part-time/full-time divide is over. Only the very privileged is a full-time student. If we can't get lifelong learning for employees, the idea of a learning society is a mere pipe dream," he said.
Letters, page 21