Adult learning and the UK election (3): The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are conventionally seen as the UK’s third party, though they have far fewer seats than the Scottish National Party. On the basis of the current opinion polls, it is possible that the Lib Dems will have an influence on the next government, either as coalition partners or as holders of the balance of power. They also have a strong if regionally uneven presence in local government. So along with my earlier analyses of the Conservative and Labour proposals for lifelong learning, I thought I’d add my two-penn’orth on the Lib Dems’ manifesto.

New Picture

Like the two main parties, the Lib Dems favour an interventionist industrial strategy supporting innovation and skills. In respect of skills, the party’s industrial strategy will include a major expansion of high-quality apprenticeships, including advanced apprenticeships, backed with new sector-led national colleges, to be accompanied by a national skills strategy for key sectors. There is also a general commitment to build digital skills.

Demand for skills will presumably arise as a result of the industrial strategy, and it is accompanied by the idea of a ‘good employer kitemark’. But the skills section of this strategy is considerably less specific than the manifesto commitments of the other two parties, both of which set a numerical target for apprenticeships.

Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems prefer to avoid the distinction between apprenticeship starts and completions. Other than renewables they do not specify what sectors will form the basis of the strategy. It is unclear whether ‘national colleges’ will be created in England only, or across the UK.

In fact, I cannot imagine why they favour new national colleges given that we have plenty of colleges in existence already, most of which are gasping for investment. And of the three main parties it is the Lib Dems who have the least to say about further education, with colleges meriting little more than a cursory mention in passing.

The Lib Dems reserve their principal proposals for education for a section titled Children First. They signal their support for family learning as a means of raising child attainment, with plans for a new online Family University, supported by leading organisations such as the BBC and Open University, to provide every family with advice and guidance for learning and parenting at home.

This sounds like a good idea, but as will be obvious to every adult educator, the devil is in the detail. Left to its own devices the Family University’s ‘natural’ audience will be middle class mums and dads with ambitions for their kids, rather than those whose kids are systematically failed by the schools system as it stands.

More conventional university education receives detailed attention. The manifesto promises a review of higher education finance, in the light of evidence on access, participation and quality, as well as the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, and a requirement that all universities work to widen participation across the sector. Not a word about the collapse of part-time learning in higher education – most of which took place while the Lib Dems were in the ruling coalition.

The Children First chapter does include a section on what it calls ‘lifelong opportunities to learn’. It offers a paragraph of rationale for lifelong learning, but this is confined to the need for career-long upskilling. Most of it is not particularly concerned with lifelong learning, but instead restates the party’s proposals on apprenticeships and national sector colleges.

Nevertheless, it does offer some specific plans for learning in adult life. These are:

  • Aim to meet all basic skills needs including literacy, numeracy, and digital skills by 2030. This is clearly a Good Thing, but I have no idea what it means in practice; who is to do the ‘meeting’, how they will be funded, and how the results will be measured, are not spelt out.
  • Create individual accounts for fnding mature and part-time adult learning and training, and provide for all adults individual access to necessary career information, advice and guidance. There are plenty of models elsewhere, such as the interesting skills credits scheme in Singapore, so this is a feasible policy if carefully designed. Who will be eligible for the Lib Dem accounts, what types of learning will they cover, how much will they be worth, how will the government avoid fraud, and how will they be paid for? And is the Party really proposing an entire new adult guidance service, or something much more modest?
  • Facilitate across the UK an effective and comprehensive system for credit transfer and recognition of prior learning and qualifications. We already have such a system in place across the EU and beyond (ECTS), and the simplest thing would be for the four nations of the UK to commit to observe it after Brexit. It is, of course, a matter for each of the four nations to decide its own policy in this area. However, the problem is not creating a system; rather, it is to ensure that education providers and employers (including government bodies) actually use the ones that exist.

The Lib Dems make no proposal for replacing the European Structural Funds after Brexit. This is in keeping with the over-arching policy of continuing to oppose Brexit, and in keeping with that they are economic will the truth, predicting ‘the loss of £8.9 billion of European Structural and Investment Funds’, failing to mention that the UK pays far more into the Funds than it receives (and in principle, therefore, will have more funding available for these purposes). As these Funds, especially the Social Fund, are a major source of support for adult and community learning, this isn’t a minor issue. Nor is their decision to keep quiet about reinsertion programmes for the unemployed. 

Before reading the manifesto I wanted to like the Lib Dem’s policies more than I did afterwards. Leaving aside the dishonesty about the Structural Funds (dishonesty was the dominant motif of the Brexit debate, on both sides), I found the manifesto disappointingly thin on specific plans, and lacking crucial detail where it did include concrete proposals. Nevertheless, there are some constructive ideas, and the Family University proposal has real potential for innovation, so there is plenty of fodder for lobbying and development after the election is over.

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The ongoing decline in part-time higher education in the UK

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that the number of people studying part-time has continued to fall. While the number of part-time higher education students in further education colleges is buoyant, the numbers at HEIs have fallen substantially.

New Picture (1)

Over five years, the higher education sector has lost over 14% of its undergraduate degree students, and over 50% of its ‘other undergraduate’ students ( a category which includes people on Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, as well as since modules and accredited short courses).

This continuing decline reflects badly on governments, whose tuition fee policies have slashed demand for a mode of study that allows people to combine work with learning. It also reflects badly on the higher education sector, which has preferred to recruit young school-leavers onto full-time courses (largely because, in my experience, this enables more accurate mid-term planning) and to close down adult education programmes.

Effectively, the four national governments of the UK are presiding over the dismantling of one key plank of the lifelong learning system. The fact that they seem to be stumbling blindly into this policy by default is neither an excuse nor a help.

 

Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

Mensa Uni Koeln

Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.

 

 

The crisis in part-time higher education: its impact in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

UK part-time undergraduate enrolments by location of HEI (OU excluded)

Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?

A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.

For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.

First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.

Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.

So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.

And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.

But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.

So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.

In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.