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Higher Education: Part-Time Students

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the Green Paper on higher education published on 5 November made no mention of part-time students.

My Lords, the Government’s Green Paper on higher education will ensure that all students, including those studying part-time, benefit from high-quality teaching and the prospect of a good graduate job. The decline in part-time and mature study is concerning, which is why in the last Parliament we took a number of steps to address it. We remain committed to supporting part-time study in this Parliament.

I thank the Minister for that reply but I point out to her, as I am sure she knows, that in 2010 there were 267,000 part-time students. Today, there are only 116,000—a drop of 140,000 people in part-time education. Many of them come from the more disadvantaged groups of society and many are mature students who are making good the failings of their earlier education. Given that we have this desperate skill shortage and that we desperately need to get these older people taking the chance to upgrade their skills and improve their education, can the Minister explain why this Government have been so blind to these opportunities? I take on board what she says about the quality of teaching, but the Government have been consulting for six months on what to do about part-time education and there is nothing in this Green Paper about the crisis that has arisen.

My Lords, we have taken measures to continue to encourage part-time students. We have introduced loans for tuition fees and, compared with the year before, double the number of part-time undergraduates now have a student loan. We have enabled second-degree student funding support for specific subjects, and of course we have higher and degree apprenticeships, which are the fastest-growing part of the apprenticeship programme. We take these concerns seriously and are taking action.

My Lords, the Minister must know that there has been a drop of 55% in the number of part-time undergraduates in our universities. That is a very worrying figure, and even more damage is being done to part-time education in our further education colleges, a third of which this Government look bent on closing. Would the Minister care to comment on those two points?

As I said, we accept that the fall in part-time student numbers is concerning and that is why we are taking a range of measures. I will not repeat them because I know that noble Lords want me to be brief. However, we understand the concerns and are taking action. We consider the FE sector to be extremely important.

Is the Minister aware that, this very week, the vice-chancellor of the Open University has called for the restoration of module courses to qualify for loans for part-time students? He says that module courses are the best and most effective way of upskilling people, for the benefit not merely of the individual but of industry itself.

We have decided as a Government that we want to focus the resources that we have in a time when money is tight. We believe that it is best value for money to focus resources on those people undertaking and gaining a qualification. That is where our priority and funding have been.

I am sure the Minister is aware that 60% of part-time students are female, and they could be disproportionately impacted by any of these changes. How will the Government prevent that and ensure that women will not bear the brunt of any changes, or lack of support, in provision to higher education?

As I said, we are taking a series of measures to try to encourage people who want to undertake part-time courses. Of course we encourage anybody who wishes to undertake upskilling to be able to do so. As I said, we have seen a 43% increase in the number of higher and degree apprenticeships compared to 2013. We have got them in various industries already and another 11 have been approved for development, so we are looking at other ways in which we can encourage people into part-time study.

My Lords, the Minister says that the Government believe that further education colleges are important. Can she therefore give us an assurance that there will be no closure of FE colleges as a result of the spending review?

Can the Minister give us some indication of how many students are currently undertaking the highest level of apprenticeship —are actually on a course?

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the record number of ethnic-minority students going into higher education, particularly from the Afro-Caribbean community? This was highlighted in the IFS report yesterday.

I am delighted to join in the congratulations of the noble Baroness. This is something that we are very committed to. The Prime Minister wants to ensure that we increase the number of BME students by 20% by 2020, which is why the Green Paper proposes a new social mobility advisory group to help outline the plans for how we will achieve that.

The answer to that is very complex and very long, and I am happy to talk to the noble Lord offline. There are a number of reasons: as I said, we have more people going into apprenticeships, so they are taking different routes; we have more people with an initial qualification, who will not necessarily want to take a second qualification; and we have a growing economy in which people are in stable jobs and able to advance by that route. There are a range of issues.