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House of Lords Hansard
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20 March 2018
Volume 790

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will consider further ways of promoting part-time study in the light of the findings set out in the report by the Sutton Trust, The Lost Part-Timers.

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My Lords, we want everyone with the potential to benefit from higher education to do so. Studying part-time brings considerable benefits for individuals, the economy and employers. The recently announced review of post-18 education and funding will look at how we can encourage learning that is more flexible and complements ongoing government work to support people to study at different times in their lives.

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I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I would be pleased to hear more than warm words. I would like action on the serious report by the Sutton Trust, which found a fall of 50% in part-time study in the last five years. This is very serious indeed, particularly for the Government’s intended strategy, which is supposed to improve social mobility and encourage part-time study. Will the Government therefore undertake to include in their coming report on post-18 education consideration of part-time education as a whole, which will help fulfil their industrial strategy?

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The noble Baroness has spoken at length on this subject in the past. We are concerned about the decline in part-time study. I can reassure her that the review of post-18 education and funding will look at how we can address this issue further. Indeed, part of its terms of reference include consideration of:

“How we can encourage learning that is more flexible (for example, part-time, distance learning and commuter study options) and complements ongoing government work to support people to study at different times in their lives”.

Beyond the review, as the noble Baroness will be aware, the Higher Education and Research Act placed a general duty on the OfS to consider the means by which learning is provided and specifically mentions part-time study.

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My Lords, it should be a matter of great concern to see the decline in mature and part-time students at such transformational institutions as Birkbeck and the Open University. Will the Government consider a better-monitored version of the individual learning account, where contributions from learners, employers and government could provide a very effective mix of funding and motivation?

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I am sure that the panel will take note of the points made by the noble Baroness. The review covers all post-18 education and funding and it is important for it to look at this area. In addition to this, since 2012-13 we have provided tuition fee loans for part-time courses, and in 2018-19 we intend to introduce full-time-equivalent part-time maintenance loans, so there is some further action ongoing.

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Would my noble friend accept that one of the greatest achievements of any post-war Government was the creation of the Open University? What are the Government doing to encourage mature adults to take up courses at the Open University?

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The Open University is a good example. The noble Lord may know that there is a restructuring exercise going on there, and the Open University is looking to change the way it operates to take account of changing conditions and the reduction in part-time study. That is something that we will be looking at.

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My Lords, the Minister is being remarkably complacent. He and his colleagues have presided over a devastating reduction in the number of part-time students. That is madness when it comes to the priority to upskill people who have missed out on higher education in the past. The Sutton Trust report makes abundantly clear that the reason for the huge reduction is that the Government got rid of maintenance grants and put the fees up by a huge amount. Incidentally, in his Statement to this House in February, the noble Viscount did not mention part-time students. So instead of a review, why do the Government not reverse that decision and restore maintenance grants?

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My Lords, the important thing is to look at the reasons for the decline, and they are indeed complex. Over the past five years, there have been wider changes to the economy and there was the removal in 2008-09 of the HEFCE teaching grant for equivalent and lower-level qualifications, so there are complex issues here that need to be addressed. I also point out to the noble Lord that the numbers have fallen not only in England. The noble Baroness is right that the number has fallen significantly—actually, I have a figure of 63%—so we understand the seriousness of this, but the number has also fallen in Scotland by 22% and in Wales by 46%.

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My Lords, is it not important to recognise the particular problems of part-time students, which are not faced in the same way by full-time undergraduates starting their studies at 18? In particular, there are often challenges with families, occupations, dependants, the difficulty of going back to full-time education after a long period outside and all the pressure that that has on people. In a sense, we should focus far more on the challenges that part-time students face than the rather more predictable course of full-time students.

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The noble Lord is absolutely right. That falls in line with what our statistics show us, which is that part-time study typically caters for more mature students: in 2016-17, 53% of undergraduate entrants were aged 30 or older. But to look broader to the noble Lord’s question, we are looking at those people who might not have made the right career choice and in their 20s or 30s might be looking to make a change in their career. Part-time study could suit that. Returning mothers is another important group that we will be looking to encourage to get back into employment, and there are also post-retirement courses. All these areas are important and complex, and we need to look at them as part of the review.

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My Lords, have the Government considered the link between immigration, particularly from the rest of the European Union, and the shortage of medium skills at all levels? I see FE colleges being cut back as well as part-time education. I am very conscious that, across Yorkshire, companies find it easier to recruit directly from Slovakia or Poland than train their own people. The new apprenticeships scheme, as the Minister will know, has led to an immediate drop in new apprentices being taken on last year, so this will not help. Investing in training, part-time and full-time, for the 50% of our people who do not go to university is not only key to our economy but key to reducing the pull factor in immigration, which comes from companies recruiting directly from abroad.

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We should look at life from a more positive angle. The noble Lord mentioned the apprenticeship levy, which is just one of several apprenticeship or levy schemes that are ongoing, particularly if we look at the construction sector, which is very important indeed. The objective is to home grow our own skills.