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Higher Education: Part-time and Mature Students

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reverse the decline in the number of part-time and mature students at higher education institutions.

My Lords, the decline in part-time and mature students partly reflects dramatic improvements in the job market and the strength of our Government’s long-term economic plan. However, we are committed to helping those who wish to enter higher education. That is why for the first time we have made available non means-tested loans to cover part-time tuition fees. We are also investing in higher level apprenticeships, with 13,200 new starts in the nine months to April this year, compared with just 2,200 in 2010-11.

My Lords, part-time education has traditionally been the route by which those in work have been able to upgrade their skills. We have seen this enormous drop of 55% in the number of part-time students—143,000 people dropping out of part-time education over the last four years since 2010-11. Given that we have an ageing population whom we expect to work ever longer hours, and that, as the CBI reports, there are already skill shortages, does the Minister agree that it is vital for us to retain this route whereby people can upgrade their skills—it is a far more flexible means than apprenticeships—and play a useful part in the economy?

I agree that we are very keen to stimulate this sector and that is why we have introduced the loan scheme to which I referred. We had a very weak economy, which resulted in a number of employers not funding these schemes. We then had a dramatic turnaround and recovery in the economy, with the creation of 2.5 million new jobs in the private sector, which obviously has had an impact on people deciding what they want to do and what employers will fund. Of course, over 80% of students in part-time education are in work. We are very keen to stimulate demand in the sector. We have written to key players in the sector asking for their thoughts, and we are extremely open to ideas.

Is the Minister aware that the appalling drop in part-time studies affects seriously not only the major providers such as Birkbeck and the Open University but universities across the entire system, where part-time study has been held to be a little marginal and now risks being entirely junked, with the loss of a great deal of useful input into the higher education system? Is he further aware, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has just said, that at a time when employers are crying out for a flexibly minded, flexibly trained workforce, this is an exact description of the output of part-time students, a third of whom are intent on changing their career as a result of such education?

I have already made a similar point to the noble Baroness: we are aware of the decline. We are keen to stimulate further but it not just about university education; for instance, our higher and degree-level apprenticeships are the fastest-growing part of our apprenticeships programme. This is all about widening access and helping people to develop the skills they need so that British industry can be competitive internationally. More than half of the people on these courses are over 25.

My Lords, I ask the Minister to address the solution to this problem, which lies within the remit of the Government. I speak as the president of Birkbeck, which has been very badly hit. Part-time education is being prevented from moving forward, and what is needed is the repeal of the 2008 policy that makes equal level qualifications not available for grant. If that folly of a policy was repealed, it would make a huge difference to those coming into part-time education. The Government are missing an important strand of policy, which would bring them great benefit.

We have already relaxed that policy, which was introduced by the Labour Party, in relation to student support for those taking a second degree in part-time education in technology, computer science and engineering.

My Lords, the original Question asked Her Majesty’s Government what plans they had to reverse the decline, which is very substantial. The Minister has offered only one suggestion, which is that loans will be available. Loans, on top of having to raise huge amounts in fees, mean that these students are going to be further in debt. Is that the only proposal he has?

No, as I have already said, we have the higher and degree-level apprenticeships. We are committed to expanding the apprenticeship programme to 3 million over the next five years, adding to the 2.2 million we have already introduced. These are high-quality apprenticeships, involving employers at every level in curriculum design and delivery methodology. Some 140 trailblazers have already come up with 350 new standards, which have either been published or are in development.

My Lords, the questions so far have been about part-time students, and of course Birkbeck does brilliant work on that. The Question also asks about mature students. Can the Minister tell us what sort of funding is available to mature students for postgraduate degrees, particularly PhDs, and is supporting them a government priority? I speak as the chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

For the first time, anybody under the age of 30 who is eligible to study a postgraduate master’s degree is now able to apply for an income-contingent loan of up to £10,000. This is also available to part-time students, up to 50%.

My Lords, I am so sorry to interrupt. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, would not have been able to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is trying to get in, and it is the turn of the Lib Dems.

My Lords, the Minister has said repeatedly in answering this Question that the Government want to stimulate the sector. If the issue is that employers will not provide support, what can the Government do to encourage employers to support part-time students, perhaps with some tax relief if they are supporting students gaining high-level qualifications which will benefit their businesses?

I have already said that we have extended the loan scheme. The noble Baroness makes a very good point about tax breaks. We are looking at a number of alternatives and I will certainly take that point back.

My Lords, the Minister has referred three times to the expansion of apprenticeships, which is excellent, but that expansion should not take place at the expense of the destruction of further education. The cuts of 24% in the FE budget and the adult skills budget earlier this year mean a loss of 400,000 FE students in this year alone. How many of those will be in construction, engineering and creative skills—the future of the economy—and how many adults will not be able to access literacy and numeracy? How will that help us build the houses we need and the economy we need, and to get more families into work— the ambition of his Government, as I understand it?

We have created 2.5 million more jobs in the private sector, which is about 2.5 million more than the Labour Party thought we would create. We fully recognise the importance of further education in getting people the skills they need. That is why we have committed nearly £4 billion in 2015-16 to adult learning and further education, including nearly £800 million to apprenticeships funding.