UK universities and firms call for part-time study funding reform

UUK and CBI back transformation of apprenticeship levy into ‘skills levy’

October 26, 2018
Parent and child

UK universities and businesses have joined forces to call for the country’s apprenticeship levy to become a skills levy, supporting a wider range of courses, and for funding and regulatory reforms that would support uptake of part-time study.

Universities UK and the Confederation of British Industry made the joint statement to the review of post-18 education in England in response to a 37 per cent drop in the number of people studying part-time in the UK since 2010-11.

A survey conducted for UUK of 835 “lost learners” – those who had considered part-time higher education, but did not go on to complete a course – found that 44 per cent of respondents said that the cost of tuition fees was behind their decision not to enrol. The difficulty of affording living costs while studying was cited by 42 per cent.

Significantly, 43 per cent of respondents said that they probably would have studied part-time if England’s 2012 funding reforms had not affected flexible study. These reforms – tied to the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees for full-time programmes – led to higher fees on part-time courses, the introduction of fee loans, and the removal of means-tested grants.

Separate research involving more than 5,000 businesses indicated that, where companies looked to upskill or retrain existing staff, they tended not to use universities, reporting concerns about not wanting to lose staff for extended periods of time and the cost of higher education courses.

UUK and the CBI argued that that the apprenticeship levy – which all large employers in England must contribute to – should become a skills levy, supporting a wider range of courses in higher education. While at least 60 English universities were involved in providing degree apprenticeships in 2017-18, the organisations say that difficulties in accessing funding and approving standards means that growth is “limited”.

UUK and the CBI also said that there should be moves in the longer term towards providing funding for flexible learning by module, not across full degrees or other certificates, to meet learner and employer demand for shorter courses. Such a model, the organisations said, would allow learners to take multiple units over their lifetime, as their needs change, building up to a full qualification.

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales and chair of the project’s advisory group, said that discussion about access to higher education too often “focused only on the traditional route of school leavers heading away to study full-time at university for three or four years”.

“Learning and improved life chances should not stop when you reach your twenties. It must continue over a lifetime,” she said.

“If the UK is to succeed in future, with the challenges of Brexit, rapid technological advances and an ageing population, more people of all ages should be going to university to upskill, retrain and develop the higher-level skills that employers need.

“As the way we work changes, government must change the education system to better support universities offering shorter and more flexible courses, in order to better meet the needs of learners and employers.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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