Andrew Cubie: Part-time students due fairer share of education pot

In Scotland, 74,000 higher education students pay fees, usually out of their own pockets, exluded as they are from free tuition because they choose or are forced to study part-time

THE large rise over the last five years in the number of people 21 or under who studywith the Open University shows that more young people are choosing, for personal reasons, to "earn while they learn" Picture: Xxx

The elections earlier this month delivered a resounding success to the Scottish National Party. This is a quite remarkable achievement. As one who served on the Consultative Steering Group which set up the working arrangements of the embryonic Scottish Parliament, the majority held by one party, as now exists, was never fully contemplated.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Much has been written of this in the last few weeks and its possible implications. It seems to me, despite the challenges of financial constraints for the Scottish Government, there are areas where government can address areas of inequity more easily than in the compromise of coalition or minority.

While true across the range of devolved powers, it is nowhere more so than in education. I write this not to repeat my well known views about the equity of a graduate financial contribution from our ultimately advantaged graduate community, but rather to address the circumstances of Scotland's 74,000 part-time students.

We all appreciate in the wake of last year's Comprehensive Spending Review there are extremely hard choices ahead for all of us as we anticipate our new government's legislative programme and underlying budget.

For many the mantra of "more for less" is now conventional wisdom, but that requires distinctly different approaches. In the needs of part-time students there are such options.

Scottish part-time higher education students have always paid tuition fees - upfront and largely out of their own pockets. Many of them choose to study part-time to accommodate work or their commitment as carers, or because their own health means it is the only, as opposed to the best, way to study.

Indeed, while all the political parties in Scotland, with the exception of the Conservatives, tripped over themselves prior to the election to reassure Scottish students that full-time higher education would remain free, no such promises were made to the 74,000 Scots who study part-time.

This enormous group of students will wonder when this broad consensus that the "democratic intellect" must be preserved by ensuring that access to higher education is based on ability to learn - rather than ability to pay - is going to be extended to them.

Increasingly, the distinction between full-time and part-time students becomes blurred.For many, if not most in full-time study, term-time remunerated employment is the norm, not the exception. Where does a logical boundary lie between full and part-time study? Clearly not in funding!

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For Scotland's economy to grow, higher education needs to be accessible to all those who can benefit from it, not just young people leaving school who will attend university full-time. Our economy, particularly those growing and emerging sectors that depend on a highly skilled workforce and world-class research and innovation, relies not just on a steady stream of young graduates but, crucially, also on people willing to take their skills and qualifications to a higher level.

Meanwhile, studying while in employment must be a gain both for the student and their employer. A new or enhanced qualification will boost an individual's career prospects in the long term, while their newly gained skills and knowledge can be immediately applied to the workplace. It also works the other way: they help shape the whole community of students through bringing their knowledge and experience from the workplace to the curriculum.

While part-time study permits those of ability to achieve potential later than their peers, it is by no means the preserve of people returning to learning later in their lives. The significant rise over the last five years in the number of people aged 21 or younger studying with the Open University should alert us to the fact that more young people are actively choosing to "earn while they learn".

The rise in demand for more flexible higher education provision from young people may also highlight an increasing recognition by students of the career benefits to be gained by applying newly acquired skills and learning to their current job. Realistically, for many employees, a return to study will only be an option if they can fit their learning around their employment (and family commitments).

It is worth pointing out that many working people may not need to embark on an entirely new qualification in order to up-skill, but can choose simply to take a selection of modules from degree courses to top-up existing qualifications.

If Scotland accepts that the needs of the economy will increasingly rely on people already in employment returning to education to increase their skills or develop new ones, and encouraging those not in employment to consider higher education, what can we do to allow them to realise their ambitions?

As part of the current debate on higher education funding, we should review whether there is a more effective way to provide a greater contribution towards tuition fees to a wider group of people studying part-time.

For the individual, studying part-time in parallel with employment could offer a cost-effective mode of study, provided it is properly supported. However, minimising the cost to the individual is only one part of the equation.Making it easier for people to study at a pace that fits around their work and personal circumstances means taking a hard look at the way that we fund institutions - as well as how we fund individuals.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Universities should be incentivised to provide the flexibility demanded by people who choose not to - or cannot - study full-time, yet the current funding system works against institutions that want to offer students a greater choice about the level of intensity at which they study.

Achieving greater flexibility within the sector featured strongly in Building a Smarter Future, last year's Green Paper on higher education, and many of the consultation responses published - including those from CBI Scotland and the STUC - support this ambition. Scotland has led the way in establishing the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework - a lifelong learning framework based on accumulating credits - and we should now be building on this to link funding to credit.

While the current debate on higher education has focused almost exclusively on how it is paid for, nobody is asking equally important questions about whether our higher education system delivers the kind of flexibility that meets the demands of today's economy and tomorrow's students.

The new Scottish Government needs to look beyond the needs of young people in full-time higher education and grasp the thistle of ensuring our universities meet the requirements of all students. I am pleased to support the Open University in their initiative, that when the word "equity" is used in reference to higher education, it must apply to part-time as well as full-time study. I began this article around the proposition of "more for less". In this context this can occur.

As the chair of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership, I see daily the value of recognising credit achieved in one line of study being taken account of elsewhere. Why should that not occur both in a time of plenty, as well as one of austerity? If it is not so, the learner is not at the centre of the entire dynamic, but institutions are. That cannot be right.

I caution, however, that as we have in the SCQF a world-recognised credit and qualifications framework, it is not and was never intended to be a funding framework.

It is not for me to be a narrow advocate of the Open University, but it seems to me that the policies they are advancing in Scotland around a reallocation of resource for part-time students demand attention. Their proposals do seem to me to represent "more for less".

• Andrew Cubie is chair of Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework Partnership