Row of university graduates holding their scrolls. Image: Thinkstock

Diverse needs of part-time learners must be recognised, says OU Vice-Chancellor

For many people in Britain, part-time study is the only way to access Higher Education.

Speaking at the launch of the Office for Fair Access' report Evaluating the impact of outreach for adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, which was led by the OU, the Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks spoke about how the diverse needs of part-time learners should be recognised and addressed.

Make lifelong learning a genuine reality

Meeting the challenges posed by Brexit, which will increase the demand for skilled home-grown workers, makes the need for investment in education and training more urgent.  Peter Horrocks said:

We need to guarantee thriving and diverse forms of learning, equipping people with the skills they want, that employers prize and that the economy needs.  We need to ensure that part-time learning is appreciated as equally significant and valuable as full-time study. And we need to proactively reach out to adults who are thinking about how to get back into work, change career, or grasp a second chance, but don't know how to begin.

Widening participation and part-time provision go hand in hand

With the number of mature part-time students falling in England, and an increasing number of young disadvantaged students dropping out of university, there is important work to do on recruiting and retaining students.  Peter Horrocks argued in his speech that widening participation and part-time provision are two sides of the same coin, and that the diversity of adult learners should be recognised. Research that the OU conducted with the Higher Education Authority gave insights into the barriers these learners faced:

  • Around half of mature students have caring responsibilities – and that includes more than one in ten who are caring for elderly relatives rather than children.
  • One in five report a health concern or disability, meaning that many are juggling doctors’ appointments, managing with limited mobility, or coping with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions.
  • The vast majority are working while studying, with all the pressures of competing demands that brings.
  • Crucially for widening participation, a significant proportion are the first in their family to go to university – meaning they may lack access to the knowledge and support networks which can make all the difference.
  • And of course, these aren’t distinct groups but overlapping challenges. Many prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds might also be struggling with poor health or disabilities as well as managing caring responsibilities and low-paid work.

These students often achieve incredible things against all odds: and it is vital that they have all the help and support they need to overcome their particular challenges and personal circumstances.

Access to finance

Part of the response must be ensuring that adult learners have access to appropriate finance across all of the UK.  Peter Horrocks continued:

The debate about fees and funding will never go away and remains pertinent across all 4 Nations. Of course, we have now had the forward thinking Diamond Review in Wales the recent White Paper from the Welsh Government. And in England, following Labour’s Election pledge and a possible review of tertiary education by the Government, there is increasing focus on tuition fees and funding support.

So now is the time for us to reaffirm that if politicians want to focus on fees in England, in a way that genuinely helps the economy, then they must focus their efforts on part-time students. This will really help widening access and make the biggest difference.

"Here at the OU we’re very much in favour of personal learning accounts to help mature students manage the costs of lifelong learning. These would enable people to put together a funding package from a variety of sources – including scholarships and charities as well as contributions from government and employers – to meet specific training needs."

"Singapore faced a situation with a decreasing population that couldn’t be expanded with foreign labour, so driving up productivity and skilling and re-skilling their existing workforce was vital to drive growth. Cue SkillsFuture, an initiative where skills shortages are being addressed strategically. Where opportunities are being expanded for adult learners. Where relatively small sums of money is invested in an account for the workforce to use for bite-sized chunks of education.

"It is based on the premise that a high quality education system is not just about the first 20 years of life – it needs to be a seamless continuum of education and employers must provide support. It also requires a culture change which celebrates lifelong learning rather than seeing it as a sign of earlier failure."

Listening to what mature students want

Adult learners need to feel as much part of our institutions as young people do.  Research shows that many part-time studnets feel their needs aren't being met within the current system and they feel there's only a 'one size fits all' model of HE on offer.

The Vice-Chancellor continued:

"We need to make sure that our teaching methods and pedagogical practice as well as our systems and structures are as responsive and inclusive as possible.  At the Open University, for example, we seek to recognise and reward prior learning and experience – and we would like to see credit transfer become much more acceptable across the sector. In Scotland, we are pleased to see the expansion of articulation with full credit transfer and examining student progression from College to University is a key part of widening access and promoting pathways.

"Indeed, while we need to recognise the particular needs of part-time and mature students, it’s vital that we don’t just develop a ‘deficit’ model which conceptualises them as ‘lacking’ in one way or another. On the contrary, we should positively celebrate the ways in which older students can enrich our learning environments and educational culture. The life skills and prior experience of mature students, for example, not only benefits them, but also provides younger students with inspiring examples, positive role models and new perspectives.

Adult learners should not be an afterthought. Their significance, their contribution and their needs should be actively sought, respected, and embedded across the institution.

Universities must be proactive

Genuine engagement and outreach, underpinned by a commitment to retention was highlighted by Peter Horrocks:

"As OFFA’s report indicates, we are going to have to be flexible, creative, and inclusive in all our practices – from admission to graduation – to be successful in re-engaging adult learners. Again, this is about acknowledging and respecting the diversity of adult learners, and recognising that what works for one student won’t necessarily work for everyone."

"With national strategies for adult learning, we can ensure that everyone – regardless of age, gender, existing skill set, location, and background – has access to the education and training that they need, right across their lifetime.

I believe that is hugely exciting – and that there is a growing recognition that this is not only possible, but essential. And we have a responsibility to make this a reality – to do our very best for students today and tomorrow.

Click here for the full text of Peter Horrock's speech.