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Adult Education: Part-time Attendance

Volume 769: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of adults attending part-time higher or further education classes while maintaining a career.

The department does not record the employment status of those in part-time, further and higher education. However, this Government are committed to providing learning opportunities to those of all ages and circumstances. Advanced learner loans are now available for adults who wish to retrain and study for a new career. We have been taking steps to address the decline in part-time higher education by introducing a new maintenance package. Apprenticeships allow individuals to train while progressing their careers, and we are aiming for 3 million more apprenticeship starts by 2020.

I am grateful for that Answer, although I think it would be appropriate for the Government to count the number of part-time students. Many noble Lords in this Chamber will remember the days when night school was a major instrument of social mobility, yet today night school has almost disappeared and the number of adults on part-time courses has plummeted. What can the Government do to increase the availability of part-time HE and FE courses, including night school, and to encourage people in work to better themselves in this old-fashioned but tried and trusted way?

This Government are taking a number of steps to help to encourage part-time learning. For instance, we will be introducing maintenance loans for part-time students for the first time, and we have expanded second degree student support funding for those who want to study a STEM subject. We have also expanded the advanced learner loan system, so from 2016-17 learners aged 19 and over studying at levels 3 to 6 will be able to access that support. We are doing what we can to provide people who want to study part-time with the support to do so.

I thought that there could not be a worse Government than this Tory one for butchering further education until I looked at Scotland, where there are now 150,000 fewer places in FE than there were when the SNP took over. Are the Tories and the SNP in some kind of Dutch auction to see who can reduce further education places to their lowest number?

I am very pleased to reassure the noble Lord that in fact, under this Government in the last spending review, we have protected FE budgets at £1.5 billion over the course of the Parliament. Therefore I am sure that the noble Lord will recognise how much the Government are doing to support FE and will want to congratulate us on doing so.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the committee on the digital economy of this House recommended shorter courses, of five weeks or so, and bang-up-to-date courses so that people being encouraged to do part-time courses would be given something that employers value?

I congratulate the noble Lord and the committee on their report. As I said, we want to encourage people to undertake part-time study if that is what they want to do, and of course we are working with employers and colleges to try to ensure that we have a flexible system that everyone can take advantage of.

My Lords, two of the main providers of higher education for part-time students are the Open University and Birkbeck College, both of which do exceptionally well. Have the Government carried out any consultation with them about the impact of the new fees regime on applications for such courses?

I also congratulate those two organisations on their work—in fact, I met both of them recently. The Government are certainly listening to their concerns. Part of the reason we are consulting on the introduction of maintenance loans is because we want to make sure that we get the details right and ensure that those who want to take advantage of this support can do so.

With respect, can the noble Baroness answer the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, about the Government’s views on night schools and night classes? Do they support them and, if so, will they encourage them?

We want people to be able to access higher and further education in whatever way they think is best; night schools are one way to do that. Therefore, in order to provide flexibility for people who want to do further studies, there should be a whole range of provision so that people from all backgrounds and ages can access the support that suits them best.

I am afraid that I do not have those specific numbers to hand but I will be happy to try to find them and get back to my noble friend in writing.

Will the Minister comment on the Skills Funding Agency report, which found that there are now 1.3 million fewer adults in further education compared to 2010?

We are encouraging a whole range of ways in which people can access further education. For instance, increasing numbers of people take higher and degree apprenticeships—that is in fact one of the fastest-growing elements of the programme—so we are offering a whole array of ways in which people can retrain and study further.

Is the Minister aware that one of the main factors that inhibit those applying for part-time retraining in different areas is what is called the ELQ rule—in other words, where they already have a qualification they cannot take another one at the same level? Does the Minister have any proposals for easing that? It has already been done for the STEM subjects but it would be a good idea to ease it up for other areas so that people can retrain, even if at the same level.

I am happy to say that we have expanded the number of courses where you can get second degree student support so that now people wanting to take subjects allied to medicine, biological and veterinary sciences, agriculture and related sciences, and physical and mathematical sciences can access that support.

With respect to further education —I declare an interest as someone who did three nights a week on day release at one point—would it not be a good idea that, instead of stuffing this place with chancellors of universities of higher education, we put some people with direct knowledge of further education in here?

I am afraid to tell the noble Lord that basically, there is nothing that I can do about it but I have sympathy.