Critical paths

The recent IPPR report, A Critical Path, is a level-headed and coolly-argued analysis of the options for the future of higher education in England.  It combines a coherent set of criteria for deciding where we should be going, a realistic acceptance of financial constraints and a set of rigorously worked through scenarios.  As a result, it’s an excellent basis for constructive debate.

I’m going to focus on one particular aspect (part-timers), but before  that I’d like simply to highlight a selection of the report’s telling points.  It restates (albeit briefly) the case for universities to have civic and local responsibilities.  It brings into the argument the large amounts of tax relief (upwards of £5 billion) which are granted for vocational training and suggests how they might be better and more accountably used – something we pointed to for the first time in Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning.  It provides an excellent evaluation of the merits (yes, there are some) and the larger demerits of introducing a market component into higher education.  And it gives much-needed attention to postgraduate education and the need to treat it as part of the overall funding system – apart from anything else, so that it does not become exactly the kind of socially exclusive area that undergraduate education was 20 or 30 years ago.

I’m particularly heartened by the attention the report gives to part-time students.  The first of its 10 criticisms of the current funding system is its negative impact on part-time and mature students, and the report goes into some depth on what it rightly calls the crisis in part-time higher education.    Over the past decade there has been first a drop in the proportion of HE students studying part-time, disguised partly by the success of the OU; and more recently a catastrophic decline of 40% in their numbers.

This results from a mix of steeply higher fees, a financial crisis which makes employers less willing to support part-timers as they often have and a loan system that militates against people wanting to do degrees by steps.  It’s a deeply sad undermining of our universities’ openness to different kinds of student and different kinds of studying.

Claire Callender, whose expertise underpins much of the analysis of the part-time crisis, tells me that about two-thirds of part-time students are women, so they are likely to be particularly affected.  Women will also be hit by the second of the factors I’ve listed above, since their public sector employers will be particularly hit by financial circumstances.  It may be that because more women are now gaining degrees, part-time study as a  second chance route is becoming less important for them, but I doubt that.

This brings me to one criticism of the report, or perhaps a missed opportunity for it.  The authors have a few remarks about the nature of UK employment and the high levels of low pay here compared to other EU countries.  But not only do they not mention that most of these low-paid are women;  they do not make any link between part-time study and part-time work.  It would have been an ideal place to point to the growth of part-time employment and the shift in the labour market away from the canon of fulltime continuous employment – and therefore the enhanced place which part-time study should have in the future.  (For those not familiar, the need for a radical change in our attitudes towards part-time careers – male and female –  is the central plank in the PP analysis.)

Finally, though, A Critical Path shows very clearly how much we need progress on credit transfer systems – something which David Watson has long argued for so persistently.  In an HE world where loans are increasingly significant, CP makes the crucial point that students should be able to discontinue and restart without further financial penalty, and this requires that they should be able to take their learning with them, across institutions.  (This is anyway a very underrecognised condition of allowing students to exercise some kind of market choice.)  Even if it can’t be done uniformly across all universities, why are homogeneous groups of universities not engineering this for themselves?  Then a Russell Group university need not fear a devaluation of its brand.

CP does not neglect other issues such as research funding and application. It should be a focal point in the debate about the long-term future of HE.


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