Principal Thoughts: Higher Education Policy must cater for part-time students too

Welcome to the latest edition of Ashley Wheaton’s ‘Principal Thoughts’. In this edition, Ashley calls upon the government and media to include alternative learning routes when discussing higher education, urging policymakers and commentators alike to take a more holistic approach when tackling key issues within the sector.

Where was the coverage of the 16-year-old about to take on a vocational apprenticeship or the 30-year-old about to return to education through distance, part-time study?

This was the question going through my mind as I waded through the barrage of images and stories capturing the attention of the national and local press in the aftermath of A level and GCSE results days in August.

Results day images are churned out again and again in stories relating to higher education at this crucial time for education providers; and the focus is very much on school leavers and traditional universities -– but, what about prospective part-time students and alternative study routes? What about those students that want to take this time to reflect on other options instead of the standard full-time further and higher education route?

Higher education providers, at this time, are placed under a magnifying glass as late applicants (those entering clearing, for example) and their families and friends desperately seek to ensure the next step is the right one. With life-changing and high-cost decisions having to be made at this time, any crumb of advice or data is hoovered up and coverage in the national media, fuelled by league tables and soundbites from politicians, caters accordingly.

Statisticians, journalists and politicians analyse and reflect upon higher education student demographics. They ask: how are universities and other educational institutions ensuring they provide for as wide and diverse a student base as possible? Once again, the focus is on traditional universities and little attention is paid to alternative higher education institutions and how they are playing their part in the government’s widening participation narrative.

This excellent article by Louise Casella (Director of the Open University in Wales) sums up this predicament for part-time students and the institutions which cater for them. She muses upon the recent call from the Russell Group to restore maintenance grants for the poorest students so its universities can support the government’s widening participation agenda.

Louise reflects upon the coverage being indicative of lobbying by higher education providers centring on school leavers without allowing for students at different stages of their life or part-time provision.

The Russell Group story coverage ignores the fact that many people in disadvantaged areas in the UK cannot afford to study full-time degrees, whereas part-time study can open doors to such potential students. Part-time study enables people to learn new skills or upskill while working and, therefore, not lose out on vital regular income.

Louise points out the impact of the 2012 student funding reforms which contributed towards a 59% fall in part-time undergraduate entrants in England. She comments on the official statistics which show part-time undergraduate students are more likely to come from disadvantaged areas than full-time undergraduate students.

The sharp decline in part-time students entering higher education from disadvantaged areas has had a big impact on the poorest undergraduate entrants to higher education as a whole.

If the UK government is serious about widening participation in higher education, part-time student provision must be considered in its policymaking and reforms.

The Open University is probably the UK’s most well-known provider of part-time study but it’s important that greater awareness is facilitated for other education providers such as UCEM – as the leading provider of supported online education for the Built Environment – who can assist in widening participation in higher education.

Here, at UCEM, the vast majority of our students study part-time. Like the Open University, we offer all our programmes online so, as well as being able to earn as they learn, our students can achieve our accredited qualifications without the additional stress and expense involved with relocating.

As mentioned in Louise’s article, the median age of first year, part-time undergraduates at universities in England is 31. This tallies with the average age of a UCEM student which is 30.5 (and also takes into account our worldwide student base and provision of apprenticeship and postgraduate programmes). Where are the stories about these students?

The fixation on traditional university options is outdated and, as befitting its description, based on tradition but business leaders are saying the system is not doing enough to plug the UK’s skills crises. It’s time to move away from the notion that traditional university courses are the best option for tomorrow’s workforce – a point well made by the British Chambers of Commerce’s Director General, Adam Marshall in this article written for The Telegraph.

Adam champions the cause of technical apprenticeships which assist people threefold in gaining industry-approved qualifications, becoming employed and earning while learning (as opposed to being saddled with student debt). He is not advocating a rejection of traditional university pathways which play an important role in education but urges business, government, education and the media to highlight the equally important technical apprenticeship routes available after GCSEs or A levels.

Indeed, UCEM, as a university college, offers people the chance to experience higher education and our degree apprenticeships are an alternative way of accessing this provision. It could be argued that degree apprenticeships offer students of all ages a better way to attend a university or a university college with the added benefit of job security and less debt being accrued.

We perform an important role in providing opportunities for people of all backgrounds, with one of the six central tenets of our core purpose being the provision of cost-effective education. This is evidenced in our general programme costs, opportunities for student sponsorship and formal bursary and financial support schemes.

We are advancing the government’s widening participation agenda and the content of our learning materials – relating to qualifications to support the construction and real estate industries – can help allay the widely-publicised skills crisis within the Built Environment.

To the government, media and other higher education commentators, I say this: we are here, we matter and we are an important part of the conversation. Policy and reform must be holistic if we are to adequately tackle questions regarding student demographics and provide education to as wide a population as possible.

Whether full-time or part-time, distance or non-distance, online or face-to-face, all students must be considered by policymakers to give education providers the best chance to succeed and help higher education function as it should to support the workplace.

At UCEM, we are committed to contributing to a better Built Environment sector through excellence in online education. We deliver accredited apprenticeship programmes, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. For more information take a look at our Study With UCEM page.

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