The Open University is calling on the new Office for Students (OfS) to lead the way in improving the chances of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university.
In a policy pamphlet: Social Mobility and the Office for Students - The Five Essentials it sets out five steps to reverse the decline in numbers of students from these backgrounds starting higher education in England.
The OU argues that the OfS, an organisation set up specifically to serve the interests of students, has a golden opportunity to put social mobility at the heart of its mission.
The five point plan calls for:
- National targets for access, participation and student outcomes, supported by regulation and funding decisions. To promote fairness for all, targets should include students of all ages and take in other factors such as ethnicity and disability.
- Collaboration between universities to ensure that the UK Government’s social justice objectives are met, encouraging the sector to work together to improve success rates among the most disadvantaged groups.
- Funding and results to be aligned so that students who need the most support are offered it and that fewer are put off by the thought of high fees and debt.
- Informed choice for students offered through a single portal that gives them comprehensive advice, guidance and information covering all their options for a higher education.
- Flexibility for students to be able, if they wish, to pick and mix courses, take study breaks, transfer between universities or learn in bite-sized chunks.
In a blog post published on the Universities UK website, OU Vice-Chancellor Peter Horrocks calls on universities to work together to improve the success rates of students from disadvantaged areas.
He argues that the five-point plan would help set right the damage caused to part-time higher education by the 2012 funding reforms in England – which have had an unforeseen and largely unacknowledged impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There’s no doubt that the 2012 funding changes in England have helped to increase full-time student numbers and provide secure income streams for many of our top universities and I welcome that. But success in the full-time sector masks a catastrophic market failure in the part-time sector.
“Part-time student numbers in England tumbled by 59 per cent in the five years to 2016/17. And that collapse has had a serious and largely hidden knock-on effect.
"As ministers trumpet a welcome rise in young students from disadvantaged backgrounds starting full-time courses in England, they focus rather less on the simultaneous 54 per cent fall in disadvantaged part-time students since the funding reforms of 2011/12. Not surprising, since the figures combined suggest an overall reduction of 17 per cent.
Here is a chance to ensure, for the long term, predictable and sustainable funding, equality of opportunity for all students and the availability of high quality university education at every level of society.
In a further separate move, the OU is arguing that the UK Government’s forthcoming tertiary education review should examine the impact of higher fees on part-time study in England.
Mr Horrocks said: “If we are serious as a country about preparing for a world beyond Brexit, about tackling chronic skills shortages, about answering the challenges and opportunities posed by artificial intelligence, we must make lifelong learning a reality.
“Lord Willetts has said repeatedly that the unforeseen impact of the changes on part-time is one of the greatest regrets of his time as higher education minister.
To allow part-time education to continue to be dismantled by the vagaries of market forces would be a betrayal of the very people any government committed to social justice should be helping.