We need a fairer deal for part-time students

Part-time study is transformative, for adults and their communities, and can be a radical antidote to the inequalities that grow across a lifetime.

Our guest writer is Tom Sperlinger, director of lifelong learning for English at Bristol University

The silences in a manifesto can be revealing. For all its length, the Conservatives’ ‘invitation’ is short on detail about higher education. There is no room for two long-standing commitments, to a “fairer deal for part-time and mature students” and a “clearer pathway from vocational routes into further and higher education”; both were listed on the Tory website until the day of their manifesto launch.

The Labour manifesto, meanwhile, boasts:

We have eliminated up-front fees paid by students.”

This is not true: part-time students still pay up front. In 2010/11, a student on a course that’s 50 per cent full-time will pay up to £1,645 a year, with no access to a student loan and a maximum grant of £820. So, if a student earns £17,000 per year, they pay the whole fee; if the student is on a lower income they pay up to £825 up front.

Labour claims that:

“In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics [Stem] degrees, as well as applied study in key economic growth sectors.”

In spite of the emphasis on part-time study there is no commitment to making the funding system ‘fair for all’. Nor is all part-time study likely to be prioritised. Labour’s proposals would continue the trend towards government deciding which subjects should be studied, with a debatable sense of what the economy requires.

As Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian:

“Britain has about 600,000 students learning Stem subjects that are mostly vocational and that few of them will practise.”

I run a part-time degree in English Literature at Bristol University. The students are aged from 23 to 68; 12 of 17 (or 70%) of those recruited in 2009 were from areas with ‘low participation’ in higher education (against a university-wide target of 7%). Yet this course is invisible in Labour’s vision, which sees institutions such as Bristol as only for school leavers and implies only (narrowly-defined) vocational options for mature students.

It is unclear what future there would be for arts, humanities, or social science disciplines in part-time (or any other) mode. Higher education is braced for further cuts. Part-time study may look attractive to a new government, to keep student numbers high at relatively low cost. But it can be much more than a means to an end, as last year’s Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning showed. Part-time study is transformative, for adults and their communities, and can be a radical antidote to the inequalities that grow across a lifetime.

No party yet offers such a vision. Labour’s ideas are unimaginative and built on a misleading narrative of past achievements. The Conservatives have quietly dropped progressive commitments. The Liberal Democrats will say more about their policies today – they are committed to abolishing fees for part-time students in five years and to making fee loans available in the meantime. Will they expand on their position – and hold their nerve?

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