Woburn House Conference Centre: launch event for the Universities UK-led report ‘The power of part-time: Review of part-time and mature higher education’. A room not heaving, but certainly spattered, with a who’s who of higher education. Looking through the attendance list: communications managers, outreach staff, marketing professionals , external development and partnerships officers, policy advisers. Very few academic staff.
Eric Thomas led us off with a number of caveats and warnings: the report represents a work in progress, an ‘urgent initial assessment of the situation’, it has only a mature undergraduate part-time focus, and it’s a very complex picture. However, he also emphasised that more than 50+ institutions contributed to the review. And it has been gaining substantial media coverage, both in the lead up to the report’s publication, not least through the Part Time Matters campaign, but also across yesterday’s newspapers and blogging.
So it’s real news and, as everyone at yesterday’s event was right to underline: it’s real important.
The report itself – ‘The power of part-time: Review of part-time and mature higher education’ – is weighted just about perfectly: it’s neither too long nor too short (a lunch break read, for sure); and it offers a wide range of evidence, but doesn’t wait to pull its punches. And as the speakers at Woburn House yesterday impressed on their audience, it isn’t worth reading the Executive Summary: the meat of the report is too tasty.
So what does the report say? It centres around five key recommendations: First, institutions need to get their affairs straight and make part-time provision core to their business and not an add-on. Second, a concerted effort is required to ensure that potential part-time students understand the values and opportunities of part-time, including the loans system. Thirdly, part-time needs to be fundamentally improved, and designed for mature learners, with recognition of student lifecycle and flexible learning methods. Fourth, industry and employers need to get far more involved, to ensure that part-time opportunities relate to employment opportunities. Finally, further evidence and modelling – especially relating to price, loans and ELQ – is needed to inform policy decisions.
The audience heard an encouragingly ‘on message’ relay from the speakers assembled before them, and even the expert panel convened at the end of the event to critique the report offered views not dissonant with the tune of the report itself. Katja Hall (late, flustered, but to the point) from the CBI ably aligned their ‘Tomorrow’s growth: new routes to higher skills’ report to ‘The power of part-time’.
What did I take away from the event and what’s my analysis of the situation? There are some aspects to this report which seem to fall short of making sufficiently strong a point. Some sentences in the report, seem to be rather diluted, perhaps inevitable in the pre-publication exchanges between commissioners and commissioned. But given the glaring obviousness of the effect of ELQ, summarising the way forward as ‘Change to the ELQ policy should be implemented carefully, as it is not easy to predict how they will play out in terms of both available supply and student demand’, literally reeks of watering down. I would argue quite the reverse: we know exactly who we lost and in what subjects as a direct result of the ELQ decision, so it seems pretty easy to predict student demand, and therefore supply, assuming we haven’t turned off adults from learning entirely.
Where is the sector going now? There is an undoubted tension here. Lots of important people were present and enthusiastically defining it as a ‘tipping point’. This may of itself be sufficient, but there was also the ever present caveat of a ‘work-in-progress’, and there was some essential data – 2012/13 registrations – entirely missing from the report. As such, there was a feeling that we are operating at least a year in lieu, and so calls for action and change however loudly shouted, could be responded to with ‘let’s wait and see’.
And David Willetts was not in the room, although he sent a video message and is obviously well-linked to the review. He took his opportunity to mention the partial relaxation of ELQ for engineering, technology and computer science. In the context of the publication of ‘The power of part-time’, the announcement made at the Conservative Party conference now has a kind of logic: The two main issues evident are the current coalition government’s fees and funding changes, and the effects of the previous Labour government’s ELQ decision. So it’s little wonder that ELQ was felt an easier policy to re-shape than fees and funding. Its impact will, of course, be highly constrained, unless the list of exempted subjects is lengthened.
One counter to the ‘wait and see’ argument could be institutions working closely together and sharing live data about student numbers. I think we are way past the point of guarding a commercial need to keep this data inside our walls. It’s a shared problem, and it needs a thorough shared solution.
But there remains one further lingering concern, which was only aired briefly in the panel session which closed the conference. It has been the more-or-less explicit policy of government to open up the higher education ‘market’, which has the effect of stratifying provision. This is seen as a very good thing by the Coalition Government which has even extended to opening up the ‘market’ to private providers. Stratified markets encourage players to specialise, in order to differentiate their offer from others. And here may in fact be the core problem: institutions have long been on a path to stratification and specialisation, or else being from an established and so-called ‘Elite’ group of institutions who can have no fears of unmet demands for their courses. And as such, with increasingly constrained resources, part-time provision may more often than not be an institution’s core concern. It is not, I would argue, coincidental that those institutions which are specialists in part-time provisions – The Open University and Birkbeck College – are performing strongest.
But, cynicism aside, I derive hope for a future of part-time higher education from the expressions of interest and support from society and the media, and the resolve and determination demonstrated by HE professionals who are clearly intent to take this opportunity and give it their all.