Tim Blackman’s recent Guardian blog ‘To break class barriers, students must end up in unexpected places’ was a stimulating blast of fresh air into otherwise tired and moribund debates about links between higher education and social mobility. Tim, a former OU PVC, is the newish VC at Middlesex University, and he made some trenchant comments about what selective universities could learn from the most effective comprehensive schools in enhancing teaching for socially diverse intakes. His core argument, which I suggest below is just as relevant for current concerns facing part-time HE, is that our highly selective university system filters young people into a class hierarchy of institutions, leading to league table pressures which are as much about social make-up (and associated prestige) as quality of outputs. Part-time HE represents the victim-end of this unhelpfully exclusive paradigm in an even more concentrated way. Recent research funded by the HEA (click here) suggested that the vast majority of part-time HE students would have leapt at the chance to study full-time, if different personal/financial circumstances had permitted: If I could turn the clock back, I would go full-time … if I won the lottery tomorrow I would.  I am employed full-time, so can only study part-time, but would prefer full-time in order to shorten the degree and do more with my family … it takes a hell of a lot of commitment.  Part-time HE is the only possibility for the most disadvantaged students in society, those time-poor, financially stretched, debt-averse adults who missed out at 18. Whether motivated and driven by employability (aspirations for a better job) or attempting a second chance to learn about a subject they love, or looking to be role models to their children, this cohort is effectively excluded from full-time HE. Their juggling of parental or caring responsibility, full-time or part-time work (often in low paid casualised jobs) necessitates part-time study modes. Respondents to our research were more likely than full-timers to declare a disability or cite a long-term health issue which affected their ability to study at all: others simply could not afford to consider studying full-time, and in England struggled in the context of an absence of any maintenance support. Yet part-time HE itself was regarded by research participants as insufficiently flexible to meet the wide range of learner needs and circumstances. Too often, institutions were reports as being inflexible in relation to those students studying part-time. Interviewees spoke of feeling like an ‘inconvenience’, of being ‘shoehorned into existing support systems designed for full-timers, of being ‘side-lined’ in ‘one-size-fits-all’ structures. As a part-time student you don’t feel as valued as the full-time students – the lecturer is assigned late, VLE [virtual learning environment] not working, late notice of rooms, term dates. One distance-learner felt: You do feel like you’re at the end of a very, very long piece of thread away from where it’s all happening. The big difference to Tim’s analysis of full-time HE is that part-time HE, especially in England, is in dramatic decline. Opportunities for hard-pressed adult learners to transform their lives, and those of their families, are reducing. This can only result in further exclusion from HE for this already disadvantaged group. Tim Blackman rightly says ‘social mobility is not about a lack of aspiration in low income and ethnic minority families’ – but if adult learners are increasingly excluded from full-time study for financial reasons, and are faced with a diminished offer (and provision in some institutions not designed for their needs), any hope of a thriving and diverse HE sector, addressing the needs of all those who seek to learn, will be dashed.

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