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Education: Flexible Lifelong Learning

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 24 April 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they have taken to encourage flexible lifelong learning in higher and further education.

My Lords, in 2017 we committed £40 million to test approaches to tackling barriers to lifelong learning to inform the national retraining scheme. This includes £11.4 million for the flexible learning fund, supporting 30 projects to design and test flexible ways of delivering training. We also provide financial support for higher education providers and part-time learners. The independent review of post-18 education and funding is considering further how government can encourage and support part-time and distance learning.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a fellow of Birkbeck, with its historic remit for evening classes for those in work pursuing degree studies. Birkbeck and the Open University, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, have both seen dramatic declines in adult learners since the Government’s policies that changed funding. Will the Minister agree that, for all the fine things he has mentioned, the Government’s response to the post-18 review of education and funding is the very best opportunity to tackle post-18 student finance, broaden learning options, encourage lifelong learning and make progression routes more obvious?

Yes, the noble Baroness is correct. I am certain that Philip Augar, in his review, will take these matters into account. I also note that the Liberal Democrats have sent some recommendations to Philip Augar; I have no doubt that he will take account of them as well.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of Stephen Lawrence Day, announced by the Prime Minister? The first one was this bank holiday Monday. I also inform the House that educational packs have gone to all schools up and down the country.

Absolutely. Monday 22 April was very much in my mind, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, for her tireless work to ensure that Stephen’s legacy leads to change in our communities and public institutions. We support the trust’s work with young people and schools. As she will be aware, education and schools play a vital role in ensuring that the next generation learns the shared values underpinning our society. Those running in the London marathon on Sunday, including some Peers from this House—not me, I hasten to add—will see at the 18-mile marker a tribute to Stephen’s life, designed by three young architecture graduates. I know that Stephen was a keen runner and also dreamed of becoming an architect.

I am the proud recipient of an honorary doctorate from the OU, so I add my congratulations. Incidentally, mine was presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. I believe passionately in the importance of lifelong learning and we are still waiting for the Augar review to report. It is now seven years since the 2012 reforms, which everyone seems to agree are partly responsible for this staggering decline in part-time and mature study. The OU briefing says that there is a 60% fall in part-time undergraduate numbers and a 40% fall in the number of mature undergraduates. Lifelong learning says what it is on the tin—but if we wait another seven years for something to be done to encourage it, a whole generation of potential beneficiaries will not be here to benefit. So does the Minister not agree that this is a matter of extreme urgency?

The noble Baroness is correct. I reassure the House that the post-18 review, which aims to ensure that there is a joined-up system, is due to report shortly. It will consider the issues around part-time and distance learning. I will take the opportunity raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to congratulate the OU on 50 years since its official charter date. Indeed, this is a very participative House today: a number of noble Lords either studied or taught there.

My Lords, now that the Treasury has been required to change the fiscal illusion funding that encourages all higher and further education to be funded through student loans, should the Government not look at restoring direct grants to institutions so that they are able to run these courses? The Augar review was promised for November last year, and then January—and we are still waiting. What is the delay? The Economic Affairs Committee of this House set out very clearly what needed to be done to sort out this problem. Why can the Government not get on with it?

I reassure my noble friend that there is no delay, as far as I am aware—“shortly” is the word that I am using. The Government will respond to the proposals that Philip Augar produces by the end of the year. But the Government plan to invest nearly £7 million this academic year for 16 to 19 year-olds in education or training, including apprenticeships.

My Lords, the Government’s 2012 higher education funding reforms have resulted in a drop of something like 60% in part-time undergraduate study. The noble Viscount and indeed other Ministers use as a defence the Augar review recently referred to, saying that no government action can be taken in advance of that—but that does not stand up to scrutiny. Last September, the Department for Education announced the introduction of maintenance loans for face-to-face part-time undergraduates, which was meant to be extended to part-time distance learners this September. But last month, the Universities Minister used a Written Answer to slip out the news that distance learners were no longer to have that access support available to them. Will the noble Viscount explain why, when he talked earlier about barriers to learning, his department believes that that decision will assist in reversing the downward trend of those indulging in part-time education?

The issue of whether distance learners should receive maintenance grants was considered very carefully and rejected. But the Government are absolutely dedicated to stopping the decline in the number of part-time students. In other words, it has reduced. We have made a number of changes to support part-time and mature learners. This academic year, part-time students are, for the first time ever, able to access full-time equivalent maintenance loans.