CC Image courtesy of UK Parliament on Flickr

CC Image courtesy of UK Parliament on Flickr

Recent headlines about dramatic falls in enrollments of part-time students in 2012/13 have sparked interest and concern across the sector. Two main issues are highlighted: Firstly that with the UK age demographic shifting towards greater proportions of older people, these mature individuals carry the burden of delivering on the skills agenda. Secondly that mature students and part-time students (not coterminous groups but with significant overlap) represent one of the key under-represented groups in higher education.

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has signalled its concern about part-time decline, and the Universities UK-led review into part-time nears its completion.

Against this backdrop, an interesting debate was held on 24 July 2013 in the House of Lords. It was led by Baroness Bakewell – President of Birkbeck and herself and honourary OU graduate. The question she put to the Government spokesperson for HE in the Lords (Baroness Sue Garden, Lib Dem) was “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the potential of part-time study to enable more people to acquire qualifications.”

The full debate can be accessed here:

In the broad debate in relation to part-time, there was mention of:

  • The role of part-time learning in up-skilling and re-skilling the economy
  • Whether the Government will offer incentives for employers to make contributions toward p-t HE education for their employees
  • The benefits of lifelong learning
  • Students in England now being able to receive loans for part-time study (i.e. there is now parity)
  • The role of part-time learning in promoting social mobility
  • The importance of UUK’s review into part-time education (due in the Autumn)
  • The importance of working with trade unions, employers and professional groups
  • Explanations as to why part-time is down across some areas of the sector:
    • the effects of ELQ decision
    • Economy
    • Communication of student loan availability for part-time study
  • A plea for more cooperation between HE and FE.

The OU itself featured strongly in the debate. For example:

Lord Rees described a range of activity that the OU is engaged with which directly supports widening access and participation to higher education:

“Despite the overall fall, the OU has to some extent bucked the trend with a major campaign to explain the new loan scheme to potential students. We should highlight and acclaim the special role of that great institution. The OU model of distance learning supplemented by a network of local tutors and mentors has vastly more potential in the era of the internet and smartphones than when it was founded. We all have free access to the wonderful material on the OpenLearn website, much of it prepared jointly with the BBC. The OU can surely take a lead in the development of so-called MOOCs: massive open online courses. The razzmatazz around these courses comes from some very successful initiatives by Stanford and other US universities. There are now two major organisations in the US, edX and Coursera, which disseminate courses developed by leading universities.

It is excellent news that the Open University has set up a similar system called FutureLearn. UK universities should eagerly seize the opportunity to widen their impact and support the OU by contributing material to FutureLearn rather than getting locked into one of the US platforms. This is an arena where the UK has huge worldwide potential. The Open University should have a competitive edge globally, especially as some of its private-sector US counterparts have recently suffered reputational damage. Distance learning will have a transformative effect to the extent that it will threaten the future of many traditional mass universities of the kind that exist in Italy and India, which offer little more than lectures to large classes with minimal feedback.

Finally, I will mention another benign spin-off from the internet: the democratisation of research as well as of learning. We are immersed in a cyberspace that is ever more information-rich and sophisticated. Many archives are now available on the web, which is a huge boon to scholars around the world who are not close to a major library. To take a specific example, amateur scholars are reading and transcribing ships’ logbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries, which contain fascinating social history as well as important data on the history of climate change. The involvement of amateurs has been traditional in sciences such as botany, but the scope for citizen-scientists is now far wider. In my subject of astronomy, there are sometimes so much data that the professionals cannot scrutinise them all fully. It is now possible for eagle-eyed amateurs to access these datasets and themselves discover new planets. Thanks to the internet, advances can be disseminated rapidly, even throughout the developing world. Indeed, more projects can now be done co-operatively and globally, rather like improving open-source software.

There are huge opportunities, but to exploit them for maximum benefit our system needs a more diverse ecology and a blurring of the lines between higher and further education, between full time and part time—which is most relevant to this debate—and between residential and online. We need a more effective transferable credit system to facilitate transfers between institutions and to allow continuing professional development. By so doing, we can exploit the benefits of the internet, offer a more realistic second chance to young people who have been unlucky in their early education, and promote lifelong learning for us all.”

The Government spokesperson, Sue Garden replied by praising the OU and FutureLearn and emphasised the importance of part-time learning. She added that she is looking forward to the UUK review on part-time education (adding that she hopes it will encourage the adoption of best practice and offer recommendations to support part-time study, and that she also hopes it will look at ways to incentivise employers to support part-time study); that the Government is increasing its efforts to communicate the new loans systems – especially in FE colleagues and digital advertising; and that the UCAS website now carries messages on p-t learning and lists OU qualifications. She concluded “we will be working with the sector to monitor the changing demand for part-time study and promote the opportunities available… this (debate) has certainly started us on the path to ensuring that this remains a high-profile topic”.

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