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Part-Time Students

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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11 am

I have sought this Adjournment debate because the needs of part-time students have largely been ignored in the present debate on the future of higher education. The recently published White Paper is to be welcomed as an acknowledgement of that omission, in that it is the first real recognition of the needs of part-timers since the creation of the Open university.

My purpose is to address five crucial matters: first, policy development in the context of equity; secondly, the need to recognise the Open university as a model worthy of better support; thirdly, the need to challenge the fear and reality of student debt; fourthly, the need to recognise the diversity of approach now developing across the United Kingdom; and, finally, the precise needs of part-time students.

I begin with policy development. The Government's commitment to a future system of higher education that is larger, stronger, more inclusive and more serviceable is very welcome, but policy is still underdeveloped in their consideration of the place of part-time students and of recurrent, lifelong access to HE. I declare an interest in that I am vice-president of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education—NIACE—the adult learners body.

For more than a quarter of a century, I worked in adult education, which has always been part-time. Until recent years, students financed themselves, paying for their fees, travel, books and child care support. They were largely working-class people who in recent decades began studying in much greater numbers for part-time degrees on campus or in the community within what in my part of the world has become known as the Community University of the Valleys.

I heard about two such students nearly a year ago from one of my constituents, Mr. Cled Phillips, himself a product of the adult education movement and a very distinguished servant of the Workers Educational Association. He wrote:
"Just a line to let you know that two ladies of Port Talbot, mature, part-time students of your Department at Swansea University … have both achieved First Class BA Honours this year.… This confirms the WEA and Extra-Mural faith in education for life once again. My daughter Hilary Phillips, a Sister, since 1979, as District Nurse at Port Talbot achieved her First Class Degree taking as her main subject Social Policy.…
Her friend, Gail Jones of … Taibach had a First Class BA Degree in English Literature. She is a mother and housewife … who trained with my daughter as a nurse at the Royal Infirmary in Cardiff in the mid-1970s.
I'm sure Hilary and Gail are amongst a growing throng who have benefited from … the aims of the WEA."
Such students are only now beginning to register on the radar screens of politicians and policymakers. I believe that the recent White Paper breaks new ground in that respect, but it must be seen only as part 1; part 2 must be a paradigm shift towards a journey of hope for part-time students in HE—a journey which must take account of what Cled Phillips called the "growing throng" across the whole age range who wish to make widening participation a living reality for themselves.

The White Paper speaks of meeting the needs of a more diverse student body and of improved support for those doing part-time degrees, as if that diversity were not already with us. In fact, more than 30 per cent. of the total cohort of students in HE are already part-time. Part-timers are already in the mainstream, studying at different ages, in bits—not always in three-year blocks—flexibly, at work, in the community, at home or on campus, and often through e-learning. All that should be recognised as the norm, not the image of fresh-faced, full-time young people, important though they are. Equal opportunity should mean equal opportunity throughout life.

In terms of policy development, there are three major considerations. First, HE today is very different in composition and experience from the system with which most MPs grew up. That is not sufficiently reflected in the White Paper. Higher education today is no longer the preserve of an academic elite of young students moving straight from school to university to follow full-time three-year or four-year honours degrees. Instead, in England 29 per cent. of full-time students in 2001–02 were aged over 21 and 92 per cent. of all part-time students in 2001–02 were aged over 21. In total, more than half of HE students are aged over 21.

Secondly, the White Paper is not sufficiently radical in its consideration of how part-time students of all ages and mature full-time students can access and benefit from higher education. Although the White Paper does not impose any new age-related restrictions in the package of full-time student financial support in England, neither does it take the opportunity to remove the unfair and unpopular restriction on older people—those aged over 54—accessing student loans. Setting that aside would be an important symbolic commitment to lifelong learning, it would make economic sense at a time when, in an ageing society, more adults will need to extend their participation in the labour force, and it would be unlikely to have more than a marginal effect on public expenditure.

Although the Secretary of State's intention from 2004 to extend eligibility for support through the access to learning fund for certain part-time students studying the equivalent of at least 12 credits is encouraging, it would be helpful to have further details. Proposals for top-up fees may have a disproportionate effect on the participation in part-time courses of students from lower socio-economic groups unless they also have access to a higher level of loans—repayable on the same terms as those for full-time students. Although support for part-time students facing hardship is welcome, for self-financing career developers seeking to raise their qualifications from level 3 to level 4, anticipated significant fee increases will be a real disincentive without access to loans on the same terms as full-time students. If such students cannot access loans, the impression may be given that the Government will support a "student lifestyle" for full-time students but will not help those adults who are keen to help themselves.

The White Paper gives little consideration to how e-learning might be further developed by all institutions, not only the Open university, to open up access to knowledge transfer. With the exception of engagement with business, the White Paper is underdeveloped in its consideration of how HE institutions relate to other groups in civil society. This failure is of concern since it is through a variety of outreach activities that learners from non-traditional groups, for whom full-time study is not an option, can explore what HE might have to offer them and their communities.

Thirdly, unless specific consideration is given to part-time students' needs, they become invisible in comparison to the needs of school and college leavers extending their initial education through full-time study. There is a danger that the 50 per cent. 18-to-30 age group participation target will prioritise the needs of young people wishing to follow full-time three-year honours degrees in the first instance, and the needs of those following full-time foundation degrees in the second. Although the Government may not intend to marginalise part-time study, the relative absence from the White Paper of reforms tailored to meet the specific needs of part-time students makes it hard for their needs to be considered as anything other than an afterthought.

The Government paper published this month, "Widening Participation in Higher Education", which details proposals for the new Office for Fair Access, appears to acknowledge part-time study only in the context of foundation degrees. In the case of arrangements for mature part-time research students, the Government need to do more than perm it institutions to fund PhD places from their own resources. They should actively incentivise universities to develop new research opportunities for part-time research students to combine study and work—thus building essential links between universities and older learners in industry, commerce or public service employment.

The biggest single experiment in widening opportunities in HE has been the Open university. It has pioneered three significant developments: open entry, supported open learning and distance learning, now e-learning. Given our Government's commitment to fairness and enterprise, it is surprising that that learning experience, with continuing high quality and low unit cost, does not attract more attention in the White Paper.

The OU is a model worthy of close scrutiny and better funding to drive forward the wider participation agenda. The Government would do well to note its characteristics. Year on year, between a quarter and a third of all part-time UK undergraduates choose to study with the OU. The OU has deepened and widened access to HE. Two thirds of its students are aged between 30 and 49 and more than half are women. Nearly half of OU graduates had fathers with manual occupations—almost double the proportion found among students elsewhere.

I referred earlier to student debt. It is crucial that the Government take seriously the most recent research and the views of student bodies on this matter. Professor Claire Callender of the South Bank university in her recently commissioned work "Attitudes to Debt" for Universities UK reveals that it is a factor in recruitment. In my teaching experience, part-timers were very often part-timers because of the fear of the consequences of leaving paid employment, and that affected rates of retention.

A consistent theme of the part-time student is the constant juggling of work, family, travel, and financial responsibilities: 90 per cent. in one survey were in employment. The financial decisions part-timers make can greatly affect their academic success. Working long hours and studying part-time affects retention and drop-out rates. Sound financial advice, guidance and counselling are therefore crucial for part-timers.

I mentioned at the outset the need to recognise the diversity of policy now being developed by a democratically devolved United Kingdom. Scotland has given priority to linking education to enterprise, and in Wales the concept of "the learning country" puts a high premium on lifelong learning. There is no reason to believe that the "State of the Nations", as a recent NIACE study conference was called, will not provide new strategies for widening participation in HE. One such initiative combines the strategies of the OU and the community universities in focusing on community-based e-learning. Connecting Communities Cymru links one university—Swansea—to seven communities where low aspiration, geographical isolation, low HE participation, "inherited" unemployment and negative experiences in compulsory education predominate.

I will end by posing some questions about the specific needs of part-time students, and I begin with quality. Will the Government be asking leading research-intensive institutions whether part-time students can access their courses, and if not, why not? How can part-time students following HE programmes in further education colleges be assured of a learning experience of no less high a quality than full-time students receive?

On the issue of accessibility, part-time students need to study close to home. How will the Government ensure that they are able to access a broad and balanced curriculum? Is there a case for encouraging HE institutions to develop stronger structures for regional planning? On the question of flexibility, what will the Government do to encourage a more comprehensive system of credit accumulation and transfer so that part-time learners can move more easily through the system, changing the rate and mode through which credit is acquired to meet changing needs and circumstances? What can the Government do to ensure that learners and employers do not see foundation degrees as second-class qualifications and that the new qualifications extend opportunity? What evidence is available? Given the increasing divergence between different parts of the UK, which I have already mentioned, how will the Government ensure that the system is both fair and equitable for part-time learners in all parts of the UK, no matter where they study?

Turning to links between HE and other learning, the distinctions made by funders and providers about different kinds of learning are not always understood or accepted by learners. How will the Government ensure that unnecessary boundaries are avoided at the interface between higher education and further education, between higher education and community-based learning, and between higher education and work-based learning?

Next, I refer to the need for greater parity of treatment between full-time and part-time study. What assurances can the Government give that the remit of the proposed Office for Fair Access will not privilege students following a full-time route to HE awards over those following the part-time route? In other words, will there be equal opportunities for access to services and resources for part-timers? If full-time students are to make repayments on their loans only once they are earning, will the Government confirm that part-time students should not have to pay the full amount of their fees, which may be almost three times higher each year than at present, before they too have completed their courses? Will the Government confirm that part-time students have access to loans to meet the cost of their fees, repayable only once they have completed their course?

Finally, and most fundamentally, can the Government give assurances that they will act if the proposals for HE reform are found to have increased the barriers faced by part-time students in comparison with full-time students in such matters as entitlement and access to welfare and support services while on their courses? After all, improving entitlement and improving access will be the real measure of higher education reform.

11.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills
(Mr. Ivan Lewis)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) on securing this Adjournment debate, and on his passion for and clear knowledge about the issues that he brings to our attention. He understands more than most how access to lifelong learning has the capacity to transform people's life chances and to renew entire communities. As he said, part-time study is undoubtedly a growth area, which is something to be celebrated, supported and welcomed.

In the five years since 1996–97, the number of part-time students has increased by more than 15 per cent., from 267,000 to 309,000. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed to encouraging more people into higher education, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, about whom he spoke so eloquently. We recognise that particular challenges are faced by part-time students, in balancing learning with the commitment to their working and family lives.

It is right on such an occasion to record the fact that we believe that we have achieved a great deal. For example, the Government were the first to introduce support for part-time students on low incomes. The funding provided through discretionary fee support has increased from £2 million in 1998–99 to £17.3 million last year. Hardship funds were doubled in 1998–99, when part-time students first became eligible to apply.

In 1999, we introduced loans for part-time students on low incomes, at 50 per cent. on full-time courses, as part of our continuing strategy to encourage wider participation in higher education. In addition, disabled student allowances were extended in September 2000 to include students attending or undertaking part-time courses of higher education, again underlining our commitment to widen participation in higher education, and to improve equal opportunities. That support is available for students on both undergraduate and postgraduate part-time courses, including those students undertaking distance learning courses through the Open University.

My hon. Friend may be pleased to learn that we propose to do even more to build on that package of support for part-time students. Students on low incomes, for example, will benefit from guaranteed fee support. A new grant will replace the existing loan, to help with the costs of travel, books and equipment. That grant will reduce barriers to entry into higher education for mature students and those over 54 who, as my hon. Friend said, cannot get a loan. Loans are available only to those under 55 simply because loans are written off at 65 and time is needed to recover payments.

For the first time, child care grants will be available for part-time students. As my hon. Friend will agree, that will greatly assist those juggling the demands of work, home and study. I strongly believe in the importance of offering support to those who want to spread study over much longer periods than has been traditional, particularly those who are unemployed or on very low incomes. We especially want to encourage those who are interested in taking taster HE courses with a view to pursuing an HE qualification in the longer term.

That is why we have decided that from 2004 the new access to learning fund, which replaces the existing hardship fund, will include funding to provide discretionary fee support. It will also help towards the other costs of study for students studying the equivalent of at least 10 per cent. of a full-time course. The precise details of the new package have yet to be settled, but will be announced once we have considered responses to the White Paper, "The Future of Higher Education". I assure my hon. Friend that his representations in this debate will be taken into account as we frame our final decisions following the consultation process.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned the importance of flexible provision, particularly for the group of students whose views he is advocating this morning. I want to focus for a few minutes on various elements that contribute to that flexibility. The first is foundation degrees. The White Paper announced the allocation of £32 million over three years to develop foundation degrees in key employment sectors. It also makes it clear that the future expansion of HE will be largely through foundation degrees. That should further illustrate our commitment to encouraging more flexible, vocational HE provision that will appeal to those already in the labour market. Foundation degrees are designed to be attractive to all students, but the Government are particularly keen to ensure that they are attractive to part-time students.

My hon. Friend mentioned distance learning. As he said, methods of learning are greatly enhanced by the Open university. It continues to play a major role in the development of distance learning and the use of information and communication technology for delivering HE courses. As he will know, it has worked with Cambridge university to develop one of the first three courses to be delivered by the UKeU—the delivery arm of the e-universities project—from early 2003. That course is a master's module in learning in the connected economy. The Open university will have a key role in the delivery of the entire White Paper agenda. It is particularly well placed, as my hon. Friend has said, to deliver the flexible teaching and learning vital to an inclusive higher education sector. That course is an innovative way in which students can study online for a degree while still in full-time employment.

As well as supporting traditional ways of studying, we are working to encourage better use of technology to deliver HE provision more imaginatively and flexibly. I think that my hon. Friend would agree that e-learning has the potential to provide interactive, individualised learning at the pace, place and level most suited to the learner. We have provided £62 million to set up the UK e-universities project to make HE more widely available over the internet for individuals and businesses. Part of the aim of e-universities is not only to help UK higher education institutions to secure a share of a very lucrative market, but to underpin a socially inclusive agenda. A number of the courses offered will be eligible for public funding.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are also keen to encourage community-based learning. He may be aware that, in my speech to NIACE's autumn conference last December, I emphasised my continuing commitment to adult and community learning, for those bring wide-ranging benefits, from the fostering of social inclusion to learning for leisure. In due course, with the publication of our national skills strategy and delivery, I intend to set out clearly our vision for adult and community learning in the long term. That is a part of the skills strategy that we will produce in June.

As my hon. Friend said, we must also consider credit transfer. People with other commitments or constraints are not always able to complete their studies in the way that is currently available to some part-time students. Credit systems, however, would make it possible to break off and start again without having to repeat learning, which is increasingly important for part-time learners in higher education. That is reflected in the White Paper, and we are encouraging the Higher Education Funding Council to start a two-year programme of work with other partners in the HE sector to identify and build on good practice in the use of credit systems. That work will include various pilot schemes to encourage the use of credit to support flexible progression and transfer between institutions and qualifications.

I turn now to student finance. My hon. Friend has genuine concerns about debt, but the Government believe that university education is one of the best investments that can be made. To underline that, on 25 April—only a few days ago—the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reported that university applications had risen by nearly 4 per cent. and that 6.7 per cent. of that rise was in the over-25 age group. Student loans are nothing like commercial or high street debt, such as credit cards or mortgages, and they are repaid through the tax system and in proportion to earnings. People never have to pay more than they can afford. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we shall further ease the burden of repayment; in 2005 we will raise to £15,000 the income threshold at which repayments start. There is no interest penalty if borrowers take longer to pay, because we do riot intend to charge interest above inflation.

A recent UNITE/MORI poll found that debt is not the major reason for dropping out. Students are more likely to drop out because of dissatisfaction with their course than they are for financial reasons. The same poll found that nine in 10 students are happy with their university experience and that eight in 10 think that it is a good investment in their future. My hon. Friend rightly mentioned access, which is linked to that issue. I assure him that there is no reason why an institution's future access agreement should not cover the widening of access to part-time and mature students. The intention is not to exclude those students from the efforts that higher education institutions make to widen participation.

I asked specifically about the role of the proposed Office for Fair Access. Will the Minister give an assurance that that office would be specifically required to ensure fair play and equal opportunities for part-time students?

That is a very important part of the overall objective of widening access, and I would see that as a part of the relevant agreements. I can reassure my hon. Friend about that.

On devolution, tuition fees and statutory student support arrangements are currently the same in England and Wales. However, I am aware that the Assembly learning grant, which was introduced last September, is available to full and part-time Welsh students on low incomes. We are currently discussing the Welsh Education and Lifelong Learning Minister's proposals for the devolution of student support. The discussions are official and they will continue to develop proposals. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the Parliament and Assembly already have responsibility for student support matters, the financial support on offer to part-time students is virtually identical to the current support package in England and Wales. It is up to the devolved Administrations to decide whether they want to follow our lead and offer an enhanced package to part-timers.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by my response and about our commitment to widening access and participation for part-time students. I welcome his contribution to the debate on the White Paper, and specifically on how we can ensure that the new approach to higher education supports the participation of non-traditional learners, part-time learners and mature students.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.