Vince Cable’s lifelong learning commission – a missed opportunity?

An under-reported part of Vince Cable’s first conference speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats was his announcement of an independent commission on lifelong learning. Being a lifelong learning geek, this announcement thrilled me far more than anything else he said that day. Lifelong learning has shamefully been political tumbleweed for far too long. It’s not a topic that the Conservatives or Labour have seriously engaged with over the last decade or more. It’s to Vince’s great credit that he’s the first national party leader to take lifelong learning seriously in the modern era.

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It’s been a long wait since last Autumn’s speech, but yesterday the TES revealed the twelve-strong commission. They are:

  • Chair: Rajay Naik – Chief Executive of Keypath Education
  • David Barrett – Associate director of fair access and participation, Office for Students
  • Stuart Croft – Vice chancellor of the University of Warwick
  • Stephen Evans – Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute
  • David Hughes – Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges
  • Simon Hughes – External adviser to the Open University (and former Lib Dem MP)
  • Shakira Martin –  The current president of the National Union of Students
  • Polly Mackenzie – Director at Demos (and former Lib Dem SpAD)
  • Ruth Silver – President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership
  • Ruth Spellman – Chief Executive / General Secretary of the WEA
  • Matthew Taylor – Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts
  • John Widdowson – The principal of New College Durham

I have no doubt that they will do their job to the best of their abilities, but I can’t help but feel incredibly disheartened and annoyed at the lack of balance on this commission.

With due respect to the NUS president, there’s not a single member who represents the “consumers” of lifelong learning opportunities. There’s also no-one who directly represents the needs of industry. Concerningly, the representatives of the educational providers and regulators are all (very) senior managers. I do wonder precisely how much time they will have to devote to this task. A sprinkling of talent from elsewhere in the education hierarchy would have been a very good thing indeed.

In my view these omissions are a huge missed opportunity. Without effective challenge, the commission is in real danger of delivering something bland, seen primarily through the eyes of education providers. While I trust that evidence will be taken from lifelong learners and industry, it’s not the same as having these voices directly shaping the commission’s recommendations.

Hopefully, it’s not too late to address these flaws. There are lots of talented people who understand what it’s like to be a lifelong learner, juggling the demands of family and career to ensure their skills stay up to date. There are people who understand what it’s like to be an employer and how difficult it can be to persuade people to take up learning opportunities.

I’d volunteer, but I probably won’t get a call now that I’ve written this!

But please Vince, address these issues. Otherwise you won’t get the radical proposals that you’re looking for, or what lifelong learners need.

Are we at the bottom yet? Further falls in Open University enrolments recorded during 2016/17

Today’s first release of HESA’s official student enrolment data for 2016/17 shows a further decline in part-timers. This is against a background of slightly rising numbers in higher education overall. As I’ve tracked the Open University figures since the publication of the 2008/09 data set, I’ve updated my graph. It excludes the (currently 225) students who live outside of the UK for consistency with previous years. The graph demonstrates that the institution and its students are by far the biggest loser from the changes in university funding made over the last decade.

The headline figures:

Overall student enrolments down 5,225 from 2015/16 – a fall of 4.1%

Undergraduate students down 5,830 from 2015/16 – a fall of 4.9%

Postgraduate students up 645 from 2015/16 – an increase of 8.6%

Open University Student Enrolments

Open University enrolment figures for 2008/09 to 2016/17

HESA have also provided some additional detail in the data set this year. Of the 113,285 undergraduate enrolments, 98,740 represent students working towards their first degree, representing 87% of the cohort. The remaining 13% are classed as ‘other undergraduates’ – presumably people studying for a new undergraduate qualification. Although the data isn’t there to interrogate, I suspect that this is a very different split to that during my own Open University experience some years ago.

If you want to explore the data for yourself, HESA have thoughtfully provided an interactive mechanism for doing so this year. You can get to it by clicking on the image below.

Open University Enrolments 2016/17

Open University Enrolments 2016/17

Given that the decline in part-time study is still continuing, something needs to be done, as they say. So here are three of my ideas for encouraging a return part-time study, especially among mature learners.

Three ideas for encouraging lifelong learning

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.

 

The consequences of kicking the can down the road

Kicking the can down the road is sometimes a useful tactic for avoiding short-term political pain, but often results in significant long-term damage. If a politician can kick a particular can far enough away, they may avoid personal damage for poor decisions, laziness and lies. Instead it’s the people in the can that’s being kicked who suffer. I’m fairly certain that’s the strategy of the current government when it comes to finalising the exit process from the European Union. When it proves to be the national disaster everyone with any foresight predicted that it would be, the culprits will be long gone from office. No doubt they’ll manage to scrape the odd book deal or two from the wreckage. As for the rest of us, we need to make whatever contingency plans we can.

The EU exit can appears to have been successfully kicked away for a few more months. However, one that’s been kicked down the road by politicians of all parties for the last decade or so and has largely been forgotten about has been found hiding in the long grass by the National Audit Office (NAO). Their report into the higher education market makes grim reading and not only because of the seemingly unstoppable trend towards the marketisation of HE. Nick Hillman, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), remarked that “There is a world of difference between buying a tin of beans and making the right decision about higher education“. Quite.

Far and away the biggest losers from the last decade of funding changes in HE in England have been part-time, mature students. The charts in the NAO report show the scale of the disaster for this group of learners since 2011, but in truth, the damage to this group had already started under the previous Labour government with the withdrawal of funding for equivalent and lower qualifications.

Since 2010/11, the number of part-time students has fallen dramatically, both in real terms and as a proportion of learners:

Figure 4

Part-time enrolments for undergraduate study in England have declined markedly since 2010/11.

… with mature, part-time undergraduates feeling the brunt of these changes, through policies that have created an especially hostile environment for this group.

Figure 14 - Mature students

Mature and part-time undergraduate student entrants in England 2011-2016.

Peter Horrocks, the Open University vice-chancellor tweeted this morning that the fall in part-time mature learners had mostly hit “… the career learners who need new skills”, adding “This is an own goal for government’s aims on productivity and social mobility.”

He’s right, of course. This is a can that the government needs to stop kicking. Proper policy and investment in lifelong learning will be essential if the UK – inside or outside of the EU – is to thrive in future.

Open University enrolments fell again in 2015/16

It’s the time of year when HESA – The Higher Education Statistics Agency – issue their statistical first release covering student enrolments and qualifications obtained. Against a background of a small annual rise in all enrolments at UK HE providers (up 1%) and a slight fall in part-time ones (down 1%) on the previous year, Open University enrolments fell a little over 4% (*). This marks the sixth straight year of decline from a peak of 209,705 in 2009/10 to 126,620 in 2015/16. Postgraduate enrolments are around half of what they used to be.

Part-timers now account for 24% of undergraduate and postgraduate students. In the years preceding significant changes to HE finances (the abolition of ELQ funding under Labour and the tuition fee reforms under the coalition) this figure was closer to 40%.

Open University enrolments 2008/09 to 2015/16 However, the drop is nothing like as dramatic as in previous years. As a graduate of the OU, I hope that this signals it has managed to identify a new ‘core’ market and has a sustainable future. After all, in an increasingly competitive and uncertain world, top class HE providers offering accessible second chances will become ever more important.

 

 

(*) Source: Table 3 of the SFR. Numbers obtained by adding together the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments at the Open University in England (which includes overseas domiciled students), Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

(Probably) the end

Hello! *Blows away the cobwebs and dusts furiously* I bet you thought that I’d forgotten about you all as I haven’t written anything here since May. Well, after my excellent attempts at procrastination earlier on in the year, I finally decided to buckle down and sort my dissertation out. It’s been quite a journey, which is why I’ve been so uncharacteristically quiet – both here, and on my own blog.

I’m glad to report that after many, many more hours of work than I’d originally estimated, resulting in the production of 22 drafts for the research paper and 7 for the executive summary, I successfully submitted the dissertation last month. I’m now basking in the knowledge that I’ve passed not only the dissertation component of the MSc, but the MSc itself.

Naturally, I have a number of pieces of advice to pass onto future part-time, distance learners undertaking the Occupational Psychology MSc at Leicester in future. The most important of these naturally relate to the dissertation.

Firstly, don’t undertake a piece of qualitative research simply because you’re not keen on statistics. Only do it if you’re really committed to your research question and a qualitative methodology is the only way you’ll be able to answer it. Qualitative research is definitely not an easy option, particularly if you’re looking to demonstrate it’s been performed rigorously and transparently. And you should be, of course.

Secondly, make good use of your dissertation supervisor. Keep them updated with your progress, tell them what you’re thinking about doing … and when they question you, listen to their advice and act on it. They know what they’re talking about! For example, I would have had a much worse question schedule had I not listened carefully to my supervisor’s advice at the start of the process. The quality of the questions that I eventually came up with resulted (I believe) in a far more coherent set of data when it came to analysis than I otherwise would have had. Good data certainly makes analysis more enjoyable, and it made generating evidence-based conclusions easier too.

Thirdly, find ways to enjoy the process. If you’re a distance learner, feelings of isolation and self-doubt seem to haunt most of us at some stage. Talk about your concerns to others – a Facebook group of fellow students in my first year and an email list in my delayed second year certainly helped me when I needed to sound off. The other way I found to enjoy myself was to deliberately argue for controversial positions that I didn’t necessarily hold (backed by evidence, naturally) in the assessments we were set. I seem to remember the ergonomics module being a particularly fruitful one for this approach. In occupational psychology, as in life, there are no completely right or wrong answers – simply positions you can justify based on evidence.

This is probably the end of my academic adventures at Leicester (or anywhere else for that matter). I’m looking forward to presenting my dissertation findings at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology conference as well as my graduation ceremony in January. I certainly hope to stay in touch with many of my fellow students and the academic staff who have encouraged me over the last three years. Your efforts have been hugely appreciated.

 

This article was originally published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 30th October 2016.

Post-40 Bloggers

Discursive strategies used by sales leaders in value co-creation

Today, this amazing thing happened.
DOP Conference 2017 Programme

A short paper based on my MSc research into the discursive strategies used by sales leaders has been included in the programme for the 2017 BPS division of occupational psychology conference. It’s being held in Liverpool between 4th – 6th January. I have a 9am slot on the morning after the gala dinner. I can see that I may need to find innovative ways of encouraging people to attend …

Anyway, I’m absolutely thrilled, excited, chuffed … you get the picture … to be able to speak at the conference. I really hope to see some of you who have read this blog over the years there too.

10,000 steps a day – day 11 – dissertation done!

My dissertation is officially finished. Yay! Well, almost: I will proof read it again tomorrow before submitting all 9,000 lovingly crafted words. But, done. Which brings me to the end of my MSc, too. Here it is in all of its front cover glory.

Dissertation front coverMy advice to future students is simple. No matter how tempting it seems, if you’re going to do a qualitative study purely because you’re scared of statistics, think again. Qualitative research is far more time-consuming and the analysis process far more onerous than anything SPSS can throw at you. Trust me – I’ve done both now. Only do a qualitative piece of research if the question you devise demands it, you have masochistic tendencies and are completely committed to your ontological approach. Otherwise you’ll hate it. And even if you meet all of these criteria, you’ll still hate it at some point during the process. I know I did, but I got through it. There is hope for us all.

I believe that I deserve a beer, before I return my final library book.

BeerNaturally, I walked several thousand steps more than I needed to before I bought the beer. Day 11 and still on track. Only 19 left to go.

 

If you’d like to sponsor me to walk all over cancer during September, my donations page is here. Thank you to all of my sponsors who have helped me to raise £280 so far. Please join them if you can. It will make me feel like my dissertation has some real value (don’t groan).

A distinction in procrastination

Hello all – and please accept my apologies for being away from here for a little while. “No problem”, I can hear you all saying, “we understand that you’ve been working hard on your dissertation, reading research papers, collecting data and transcribing interviews, analysing it all and making astounding discoveries.”

Hmmm.

Well, the truth is rather more prosaic I’m afraid.

Yes, I have been getting on with my dissertation and doing all of those good things, but possibly not with quite the vigour I really should be. That’s for this month I’ve been promising myself. Instead, I’ve been finding lots of ways to procrastinate, while telling myself that a bit of physical exertion is good for the analysis process, especially as I’m undertaking a qualitative (and largely inductive) approach to it.

My car has never been cleaner.

Clean carThe garage has never been tidier.

Empty garageI demolished a rotten shed that had stood by the side of my house for more than twenty years …

Shed site… and built a new one twice its size. I’ve named it Sheddy McShedface …

Sheddy McShedface… and filled it with all of the things that were in the garage that should have been in the old shed but wouldn’t fit.

Shed interiorI’ve even cut the grass (the elephant is called ‘Steve’ by the way).

Steve the elephantI think these are pretty impressive lengths to go to as far as procrastination is concerned. I’ve awarded myself a distinction, but you may be able to do better perhaps? Do let me know – it will help keep me away from Seale’s book on qualitative research for another evening if you do.

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th May 2016.

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