The mechanics of learning

Joan_Bakewell_4x3.jpgJoan Bakewell on the need to tackle the emerging crisis in part-time study

There is a real and unrecognised crisis in education right now. The last three years, since student loans came in, has seen a steep drop in the numbers of people applying for part-time study. 

It is seriously worrying for institutions such as Birkbeck, University of London (of which I am President) and the Open University – both places with a fine record of excellent teaching and student success. But it is much more worrying for the very purposes that these institutions and others like them serve.

Birkbeck was founded in 1823 by George Birkbeck as this country’s first Mechanics Institute. At the inaugural meeting, 2000 people flocked to attend. This was a time when knowledge was hot and lots of people wanted to get access to it. How else could they change the world, their own lives and that of their class. Mechanics institutes flourished, bringing learning to the artisan classes who didn’t lack the brains for study but simply hadn’t had the background or opportunity.  

And so it is today: part-time learning is still the best way for people to study without it being as costly in time and money as a full scale three year university commitment.  Most part-time students either have jobs and careers already, or, in the case of women, are trying to juggle family and work commitments. So part-time students tend to be older, in employment, and involve a higher proportion of women. Above all, they are people who want the opportunity to learn but whose life choices haven’t made it easy. 

Yet something is going wrong, and numbers are falling. We shall be debating why later today in the Lords, and hopefully arrive at ideas for turning the tide. And with this is mind, I tweeted out (via @JDBakewell) the following question this morning: “Part-time student numbers are falling. Why?”

I’ve since received plenty of answers, almost all of which say the same thing: money. People who would like to study part-time tell me they can’t afford what it now costs. What I understand from their responses, is that they don’t know how to access loans or understand what financial help may be available. Things are made worse however, by the fact that many employers who were once happy to fund their employees’ study are no longer doing so.

This is all totally regrettable, because part-timers are the heroes of our education system. They struggle with time and jobs, give up hours of family life, and travel to evening lectures. And now they are faced with costs they simply can’t meet. 

So a system that helped social mobility, offered chances to people who thought they had missed out, gives older people ways of staying up-to-date with their skills, and the retired the entrée to the fulfilling world of scholarship is in jeopardy. Ministers must now embark on a sustained policy to turn things around.

Baroness Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster, author and backbench Labour Peer 

Published 24th July 2013

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