Higher things

WilfStevenson.jpgWilf Stevenson on improving support for those already in work but wanting to study to get on

Baroness Blackstone had an oral question today on the disastrous decline in the number of part time university students on the Coalition’s watch. Since 2010, there has been a major decrease in those choosing to study part-time, at a time when many potential learners are unaware of the options available to them to boost skills, support social mobility and enhance economic growth.

Too often, when thinking of university students, we think of 18 year olds leaving home for the first time to do a full time degree. Yet, even after last year’s 40%+ reduction in part-time student enrolments, nearly a third of all undergraduates in the UK actually study part-time. That’s just under half a million people fitting their learning around work and family or caring commitments, putting in the extra effort to progress.

The 2006 Leitch Report stated that ‘over 70% of our 2020 workforce have already completed their compulsory education’. To ensure those in the workforce continue to upskill, part-time higher education study and lifelong learning are vitally important.

Last year, the CBI published Tomorrow’s growth: new routes to higher skills – a report which concluded that relying on traditional university courses alone will not meet the growing demand for degree-level technical skills in key sectors like manufacturing, construction, IT and engineering. It also states that the UK will fail to close its chronic skills gaps without urgent action to boost advanced ‘learn while earn’ training and more business-designed degrees.

It is not just future skills where part-time higher education is crucial. Part-time learners are also contributing to the current economy. 41% of them study with The Open University, and more than 70% of OU undergraduates remain in work while studying. They are net contributors to the Exchequer, and apply their new skills directly in the workplace. Indeed, recent research suggests that their contribution to economic prosperity in the UK, particularly in relation to earnings, exceeds that of graduates from full-time study for three and a half years after graduation.

Mature and part-time learners are also neglected by a careers system too focused on the youngest students on the most traditional routes, when we know that all ages could benefit from information, advice and guidance. They would also benefit from a more flexible and diverse system that allows for credit transfer and Accreditation of Prior Learning to operate more freely, at the same time promoting lifelong learning. It captures the work that students have done, helping them to continue to progress should they have to take a break from their studies.

Last year Universities UK released its report The Power of Part-Time, which argued that ‘all stakeholders across the UK, including higher education providers, government, funding councils and others, should consider the needs of part-time and mature students as an intrinsic part of their thinking, not as an add-on.’ If it is truly serious about promoting skills in the UK, the Coalition must engage and encourage those part-time learners and ensure they have a route to learning and earning that suits them.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is a Shadow BIS Minister in the House of Lords

Published 14th May 2014

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