Baroness Sharp: Cuts to Further and Higher Education will not increase productivity or retraining

Posted On: 
8th September 2015

Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford writes about her question in the House of Lords today: 'Reversing the decline in the number of part-time and mature students at higher education institutions'.

Britain has a fine tradition of part-time study. It was the back-bone of the 19th Century Mechanics Institutes which in turn have become the universities, polytechnics and FE Colleges of the 20th Century. We pioneered the Open University which today, fifty years on, remains a pioneer of distance learning technologies.   And part-time study was the route by which many our business and public sector leaders worked their way up their respective careers, topping up their initial education with professional qualifications and higher degrees.

Few realise that as recently as 2010/11 there were half a million people– 29 per cent of all students – studying part-time undergraduate course.  Most were studying vocationally orientated courses at universities (including the OU) or at Further Education (FE) colleges and were in full-time employment.  It included not only honours degree level studies but two year foundation degrees, higher national diplomas (HNDs) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs), precisely the intermediate level engineering and technician qualifications which Britain so lacks.  The contribution made to the UK economy by these part-time studies is acknowledged by employers: they recognise that part-time study is the most important means of up-skilling the population and meeting the fast changing skills needs of the modern world.

Yet since 2011 we have seen a dramatic fall of 55% in the numbers of part-time students.  This represents 143,000 fewer entrants to part-time undergraduate study.  And the decline continues.  Recent figures show a further 10 per cent drop between 2013/14 and 2014/15.  FE Colleges and universities are pulling out of providing part-time courses.  The numbers studying for Foundation degrees and HNDs have plummeted.   The reasons are complex – the increase in fees is a central issue with loans for part-timers being granted on less favourable conditions than for full-timers.  But so too is the restriction, first imposed by the Labour Government in 2008, on financial support being restricted to study for qualifications of a higher level than those already obtained and not being available for equivalent or lower level qualifications (ELQs).  This made it difficult for those wanting to use their studies to switch careers (e.g. from a teacher to a social worker) and needing to acquire a different degree to do so.  And the toll of the long drawn out recession also played a part.

The Government are finally waking up to the importance of these developments.   Their new Productivity Plan stresses the importance of up-grading skills and encouraging re-training.  They have dropped the ELQ ban for STEM (science, technology, engineering mathematics) subjects) and very recently announced a consultation on the subject.   At the same time they have already cut 12 per cent off the Adult Skills Budget for FE Colleges (which funds those studying for BTEC and equivalent qualifications which are an important pre-cursor for progression to higher level qualifications)  and threaten further cuts of 25 per cent.

The purpose of the question is to tease out why the Government are doing this at a time when the importance of providing a means of upgrading and re-skilling the existing population is becoming so important.   On the face of it, it seems totally counter-productive.