Following on from my recent post about the decline of lifelong learning in England over the last decade, I’d like to offer three broad suggestions that could help to reverse this depressing trend.
1. (Re)introduce greater flexibility in course choices
One impact of the changes made over the last decade has ensured that more funding goes to institutions whose students register for and complete pre-defined qualifications (for example, an undergraduate degree). While this makes some sense for students enrolled on full-time qualifications, as it’s a good idea to encourage universities to do all they can to try to ensure these students don’t want to give up, it makes little sense to insist on a rigid qualification framework for part-time, mature learners.
For example, prior to the 2012 funding changes, Open University degrees were almost a side-effect of taking a number of courses. There was no expectation that registering for a course would always eventually result in a degree. You could tackle their courses in (almost) any order you chose. If you were a confident learner you didn’t have to make up your 360 points for an honours degree from specified difficulty levels, provided that you had obtained enough points at the higher levels.
Current Open University procedures mandate a far less flexible approach. You have to register on a degree pathway when you first enrol. You must then obtain 120 points at level 1, before being allowed to study at level 2 and then at level 3. The expectation is that you will study for a degree, rather than taking a couple of courses that you might need to help your development. Had these rules been in force when I had been studying with the Open University, I would probably never have taken the management course I did in 1990, nor the course I took 15 years later (at level 2) which eventually led me to gain a psychology degree in 2011.
So the first change I’d make is to ensure that funding for part-time students with further and higher education providers isn’t contingent on a multi-course qualification being nominated or achieved. Successful completion of a single course would be sufficient to release the ever-decreasing proportion of direct funding from government.
2. The “Open” qualification
Since the Open University was founded, one of its more interesting innovations has been the Open degree. An Open degree allows a student to study any subject offered by the university, across faculties and disciplines. In the context of lifelong learning this is an excellent approach, as it is another way of rewarding continued study. I’d like to see more FE and HE institutions offer the equivalent of “Open” qualifications as an incentive to learners.
3. Paying for lifelong learning
The current student loan system is broken for part-time students in general, and even more broken (yes, that is possible!) when considering the needs of mature, part-time students. Mature students have voted with their feet over the last decade. A lifelong learning account might help to address this issue.
For example, an account that allowed contributions from individuals and employers, match-funded by government, but used as and when individuals saw fit would be a good starting point for discussion. It should be possible to use this account towards any recognised vocational, FE or HE course – including equivalent and lower qualifications – to support re-skilling.