The following is the text of OUSA (Open University Students Association) in Scotland's response to the recent Scottish Government consultation on the future of higher education in Scotland.
Part-time students account for four in ten of the national student population; the Open University is the main provider of part-time higher education in Scotland, and thus this response can be seen as a major contribution by part-time students.
As the Open University Students Association is mandated by part-time students only, this contribution will focus solely on the areas of ‘Building a Smarter Future’ that relate to part-time students.
Chapter 5 : Student Support
Chapter 6 : Funding
Chapter 5 : Student Support
Supporting lifelong learning
Should a new support product be considered to encourage more lifelong learning?
Over 75% of the workforce of 2025 are already on the workplace, so higher level jobs will mostly be filled by those already in work. Enhancing career prospects through education (and particularly part-time study, which will allow an income to be maintained) will become a more and more attractive option.
Our population is becoming more career mobile, and the current economic uncertainty only increases this. As well as continuing professional development (CPD) there may be a need to re-skill several times during a working life, and part-time study will almost wholly fill this educational niche. CPD should be mapped to the SCQF framework, and could then be credited towards a degree.
Should we provide more loans to cover part-time fees?
We would like to see parity with full-time students by having fees paid for part-time students as they currently are for full-time students. All students (regardless of mode of study) should, however, be entitled to a loan for support. Repayment should not begin until after graduation, and when earnings have reached a prescribed threshold (which increases in line with inflation). However, careful thought will need to be given to the ‘eternal student’ who continually defers graduation to avoid loan repayments.
How many years will a part-time student be able to receive loans for? Will this place a limit on the time allowed to gain a degree? One of the main advantages of part-time study is the ability to do so at one’s own pace, especially for disabled students and those with carer responsibilities.
Many Open University students are on benefits and study with the aid of a full fee waiver; others with a personal income of less than £22,000 use ILA 500. Will these options be maintained?
How could businesses be incentivised to support part-time study?
Employers should be encouraged to support part-time learning through paying at least part of the cost of fees.
Currently very few part-time students receive sponsorship through their employers, and incentives would be very welcome. This could be in the form of tax incentives and government subsidies, especially in the case of small businesses that can’t afford traditional sponsorship.
Should we encourage more part-time study?
Part-time study enables an individual to contribute to the economy and society whilst studying; the cost to the government is far less than that of a full-time student.
Mature students (who generally have families, homes and other financial commitments) cannot afford to study full-time for career development or to re-skill; with assistance towards fees and access to loans fro support, part-time study can be both a viable and an attractive option.
Should we allocate support to institutions to manage on behalf of their student population rather than direct to individual students?
This would depend on how the support was allocated. The Open University has over 30,000 disabled students throughout the UK, and a much higher number in Scotland than any other Scottish institution. If this system were adopted, funds would need to be allocated on the basis of disabled student numbers to maintain equality of funding. This would also push the cost of administration onto the university, possibly affecting the amount of money the student receives. These costs would either need to be met centrally or provided as extra funding to the relevant institutions.
CHAPTER 6 : FUNDING
Do you think the prime responsibility to funding should lie with the state?
We would like to see the government retain the current level of funding for part-time students, or preferably raised to give parity with full-time students.
Increasing support from business
If you believe that Scottish business should invest more in higher education, how do you envisage this happening?
Employers of graduates benefit enormously from the educational system, yet are unwilling to contribute towards the maintenance of it.
UCU proposed a scheme in Mar 2010 for a Business Education Tax (BET) [http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=4473]. This would increase the rate of corporation tax for large companies, effectively forcing them to pay for the benefits they accrue from graduates. This would seem workable in Scotland.
What incentives do we need to provide to employers?
Tax incentives should be offered to encourage sponsorship.
Businesses currently see no reason to make large (or continuous) contributions to education; they already receive the benefits that graduates bring without having to do so. It may be necessary to force them to contribute via taxation.
What changes, if any, would you like to see in the funding mechanisms?
We would like to see the ILA product further developed for part-time students so that larger numbers are able to benefit. The income threshold needs to be reviewed regularly to keep it in line with inflation and average salaries. The total claimable amount also needs to be reviewed regularly to keep it in line with fee increases, so that it always makes a realistic and substantial contribution to costs. We would like to see the FTE restriction on ILA 500 reduced to 25% and the postgraduate pilot made permanent. Money could be recouped by restricting ILA 200 use for leisure or recreational courses.
What behaviour should we focus on encouraging: collaboration; incentivising a shorter learner journey; recognising teaching excellence; any other priorities?
What would be your preferred option for achieving this?
Encouraging part-time study as a viable alternative rather than a second choice could produce very significant savings to both the government and the student.
A shorter learner journey would also be cheaper; this could be achieved by recognition of prior learning. Work-based learning (both paid and voluntary) should be accredited by the SCQF; this could then be credited towards qualifications. Vocational, academic and CPD study need to be treated more flexibly to reduce the time spent on overlap.
Under the present system part-time students pay fees upfront. Open University students can pay this off through monthly direct debit during their course; they end each academic year debt free. Working, either full or part-time, allows them to support themselves and their families. Open University graduates have no debt. This factor has seen the number of young students choosing this as an alternative to traditional university increase dramatically. School leavers are increasingly seeing the advantage of this method of study with transparent costs.
We do not want a system that brings parity with full-time students by forcing us to pay after graduation, and thus with a significant accumulated debt. Should a graduate contribution be introduced, part-time students must be exempted. It is not acceptable for part-time students to be expected to pay twice - through course fees and then a standard graduate contribution.