The Open University welcomes a report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) which calls for better UK government support and improved access to adult learning to reboot the economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Long Game – How to reboot skills training for disadvantaged adults, published today (15 June 2020), highlights the damage done to the part-time higher education adult learning sector by government policy over the years.
It warns that Britain’s workers with the lowest skills in life will have most to fear in a future impacted by an “impending coronavirus-induced recession” with many people needing to retrain.
A “lifeline” to those trying to turn their lives around
The report cites the 70 per cent drop in adults enrolling in part-time higher education since 2009/10.
In his foreword championing the CSJ’s report, Chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP calls the fragility of adult learning one of “the most pressing issues of our time” because it throws a “lifeline” to those attempting to turn around a poor start in life.
Calling for the government to “nurse part-time learning back to health” he underlines one of the key recommendations in the report to reinstate fee grants for disadvantaged part-time learners with skills needs. The report also recommends restoring the part-time student premium, which has fallen by 16 percent since 2018/19 to its former level.
“Part-time learners are often more mature and tend to have financial commitments. Over a third have dependents to think about. And many are from modest backgrounds. We should reinstate fee grants for disadvantaged part-time learners who meet our skills needs,” he said.
Responding to the report Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, said:
“The Open University fully supports calls to reboot skills training for disadvantaged adults. Where you start in life should not limit your future success, yet significant barriers remain through government policies and funding decisions.
“That is why solutions proposed by the Centre for Social Justice such as reintroducing tuition fee grants for disadvantaged part-time learners and restoring part-time premium funding are so critical if we are to truly widen participation across the whole of adult learning.
“Part-time distance learning is a fundamental part of the learning fabric for every community, it knows no boundaries and it works in collaboration with the bricks and mortar offer. The thousands of Open University students in every part of the country lay testament to that fact.
“Therefore, we welcome this report and the spotlight it shines on the value of part-time distance learning, offering opportunity and ambition to all. It is needed now more than ever as the government, and the adult learning sector look to support people at this critical time for jobs and the economy. “
The report looks specifically at the need for improved access to learning for those living in places in the UK which are bereft of traditional higher education opportunities. These are corners of the UK where demand for learning is high, yet people are poorly served by adult learning opportunities in HE, both at the traditional point and later in life.
“Second chance learning” could have transformative impact
It cites how the funding arrangements for study in the UK – introduced in 2012 – are strongly linked with a sharp decline in participation, and “appear to have dissuaded debt-averse learners”.
And its report identifies places in the UK where “second chance learning” could have a transformative impact and yet was severely underutilised.
OU BSc Environmental Sciences student Victoria Alexander, 24, lives in one of the areas highlighted in the report, in the King’s Lynn area of Norfolk. At 18 she stayed at home while friends went off to university. She was not sure what she wanted to do but still harboured a desire to gain a degree. She works in administration for an engineering company but wants to use her science degree when she finishes, to possibly go into teaching.
“The Open University allows me to study and continue the life I have where I live, I didn’t want to move away. Plus, I can work at the same time. I can’t think of any other university which would enable me to do this.
“It offers such a flexible way of learning, but I do have to manage quite a lot between working full time and studying. I never thought I’d study science but if I had had an enthusiastic teacher maybe I would have decided earlier.”
In its report the CSJ gives an example of how The Open University’s partnerships are helping to harness local learning options thanks to its part-time distance learning offer.
Kent Community Health NHS Foundation Trust (KCHFT) provides wide-ranging health care, including in people’s own homes, nursing homes, health clinics, community hospitals, minor injury units and mobile units. The Open University has been working with KCHFT to develop its workforce. The Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship and Nursing Associate Higher Apprenticeship both give the trust tangible ways to grow their own talent, and KCHFT is currently supporting almost 50 Registered Nurse and Nursing Associates through these programmes.
Dr Mercia Spare, KCHFT’s Chief Nurse explains how these courses are helping the trust to meet its workforce needs:
“There are a number of challenges for developing the nursing workforce, especially across Kent and Medway. Firstly, there’s a shortage of nurses available to come into the profession. The second is around the attractiveness of nursing and the routes in. Latterly they’ve been through academia which doesn’t suit a lot of people in terms of going along that route. Then you’ve got local competition for services. Within Kent Medway, we have a number of healthcare providers and all fishing from the same workforce pond. And then you have the retention piece, actually keeping people in.
I think the OU is an important partner because it gives us a flexibility that you wouldn’t have with another partner. Because it’s distance learning, it opens doors to a range of people who would have been precluded from going through a traditional university route. You can earn and learn, and I think that has been the fundamental positive in how we’ve worked with The Open University to address some of our workforce challenges.”
Kerry, a learner on the Nursing Associate Higher Apprenticeship, previously worked in the catering sector and then had a family. She explains how the programme’s flexibility helped her juggle her personal responsibilities and the role at the Trust:
“Being a mother, financially, going to university wouldn’t have been an option for childcare and financial reasons. The apprenticeship seemed the best way because I could learn and earn at the same time. The learning is very flexible for me. I can still go to work, come home, be with my children and spend the time that they need with me.”
The report calls for similar initiatives, referring to the OU and KCHFT collaboration as “a powerful conduit for skills development”.
The CSJ argues that the coronavirus pandemic has made the problem even more apparent. A recent survey by the OU supports this: the survey taken up among more than 2,000 adults taken between 28 April and 1 May, found a quarter (24%) of the UK workforce are learning new skills to mitigate against coronavirus uncertainty.
The results suggest that younger employees are
particularly fearful that their skills could become obsolete. Over a third
(39%) of 18-34-year-olds agreed that they would put their own money towards
development opportunities if it made them more employable.
In the foreword to the CSJ report Mr Halfon praises the work of The Open University, referring to it as one of the “bastions of social justice that make learning possible for many disadvantaged adults”.