A copy of the 2015 edition of the Open University’s magazine “OpenMinds – for enquiring alumni” was waiting for me when I arrived home this evening. There’s some great content in it – for example, articles on the Philae Lander, driverless cars and research into social exclusion, all of which OU academics and alumni have contributed significantly to. All this success makes the leading article written by the OU’s new vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, a particularly disturbing read.
Peter points out that five years ago before the changes to university funding in England (a.k.a. the trebling of undergraduate tuition fees), more than 580,000 people across the UK were studying for a degree part-time. In 2014 this number fell to just under 370,000. England has borne the brunt of the decline, with a 41% decrease. Even though the OU says that it has managed to grow its market share, the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate OU students is down by approximately 60,000 in this period.
The obstacles being put in the way of access to part-time learning in England come at a point in history when the 9-5 job for life has gone, replaced more typically with 5-9 jobs during a working lifetime. The ability for adults to learn new skills has therefore never been more important. However, the costs for those who have a degree that needs updating or who dropped out of university first time around are becoming increasingly prohibitive. The OU does provide excellent value at £2,700 per 60 credits (£16,200 for a degree instead of the more usual £27,000 at a ‘brick’ establishment), but four years ago, OU students in these categories would have only needed to find around £4,000-£5,000. One of the consequences of the last few years (in England, at any rate) is that university level education is no longer seen as being a public good – but a cost to the taxpayer that must be avoided, as education only benefits the individual receiving it. Which is a political choice of course, but utter nonsense. Just ask the Germans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, employers, who should be significant beneficiaries of investment in part-time learning, now appear reluctant to directly fund their employees. Figure 14 on page 26 of this Universities UK report shows that the number of employer-funded part-time undergraduate students dropped from just over 40,000 in 2011-12 to around 22,000 in 2012-13.
For someone without a degree there have been some crumbs of comfort, as non-means tested loans have now been made available to part-time learners in England. However, part-time students are still not treated equally, as their repayments start after four years of study (2/3rds of the way through a three-year degree), rather than after graduation.
The tuition fee reforms of the coalition government were bad enough for the part-time sector and those who wished to use it. However, the apparent intent of the current Conservative government to go back on their promise to uprate the £21,000 salary threshold for student loan repayments (in effect increasing the financial burden on recent graduates and nearly-graduates still further), along with their manifesto pledge to divert FE funding for mature learners to apprenticeships, look set to damage the interests of part-time, mature students still further.
In his article, Peter Horrocks asks all OU alumni to “… join the whole OU community and help fight for part-time eduction. [and to] Tell friends, family and anyone of influence about the frightening fall in part-time numbers and create an imperative to tackle the problem.”
I’m fairly sure that the contents of this blog, from when I started it in 2008, witnesses to the power of part-time education in my own life. And as this video says, the most important thing that everyone learns at the OU is what they’re capable of.