Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from UACE/NIACE (HE 147)

  UACE is a membership organisation which represents the interests of continuing education within higher education. It acts as a forum for the discussion of policy issues within higher education in relation to lifelong learning and the broader widening participation agenda, and formulates policy accordingly. UACE has institutional representation on its Council from over 100 Higher Education Institutions in the United Kingdom, representative of the whole sector.

  NIACE's involvement in higher education goes back to the 1920's, and it has some 50 Universities in membership. From the late 1980's, the Institute has published policy discussion papers on adults in higher education, including one of the first investigations into student retention in further and higher education: "Staying or Leaving the Course" (1996).

  NIACE and UACE have recently entered into partnership in the creation of a jointly-funded post to develop work in relation to the issues identified in this response. Both organisations are partners in the Action on Access consortium currently supporting HEFCE work in widening participation.

  UACE/NIACE warmly welcome the Government's policies aimed at widening participation in higher education. The two organisations particularly endorse the aim to develop a system of higher education which, in addition to widening participation at the point of access, will genuinely support success for a wide range of learners from different backgrounds, entering higher education via a diversity of routes. Supporting lifelong learners to begin, continue and complete a course of study in higher education requires:

1.  Retention policies at national level which recognise the financial support needs of all students, both full-time and part-time

  In England, discriminatory fee waiver arrangements make funding support available only to those studying a minimum of 60 credits a year (half a full-time load of 120 credits). This has the effect of privileging one kind of part-time learning package over another, with knock-on consequences for the choices learners are able to make. There is no apparent reason why funding for part-time students should be attached to volume of study. In terms of retention, it has an immediate impact on the many adults who are at a stage in their lives when they are unable to make a greater commitment. A 10 or 20 credit unit of higher education study is still a considerable load for learners new to higher education. The current discriminatory fee waiver arrangements make it harder for them to continue in higher education until such time as they are able to take up a more ambitious package of study. It is notable that this restriction does not apply in Scotland and Wales.

2. Institutional retention strategies which are introduced and sustained throughout the life-cycle of the student.

  There are over 400,000 lifelong learners studying in higher education (HESA 1999/2000). Many of them are studying on a part-time basis alongside other commitments. However, higher education support structures are still largely designed to support the needs of full-time students rather than the needs of those entering and re-entering higher education at different times throughout their lives. The need for HEIs to adjust to the significant proportions of adult learners now studying at this level was a key finding of the NIACE research. This applies across the full range of mechanisms which support the learning process: administrative procedures, courses, curriculum, teaching practices and support services.

    (i)  Choice of course is regularly cited in research as a key factor in retention. Adult students often have less access to the infrastructure of on-campus educational advice and guidance available to full-time students, mainly young people, and have suffered from the demise of local Educational Advice and Guidance Centres for Adults. Reinvestment in this area would pay dividends in supporting adult learners select the most appropriate course of study for their needs. It is important, also, that universities themselves create and publicise opportunities for advice, available at times suitable to adult learners, making it available both on and off campus.

        The process of choice is not a single event, however. Flexibility and the availability of alternatives are key factors in enabling adult learners who have succeeded in gaining some level of HE experience to continue. Credit frameworks are used highly effectively by many universities as the basis for offering this level of flexibility, and the extension of these opportunities to all adult learners would have a significant impact on the ability of adult learners to continue their studies.

    (ii)  One of the biggest threats for adult students continuing their studies is the notion, described vividly in many research studies that " I shouldn't really be here". Any processes which inadvertently confirm this message at institutional or departmental level will undermine their confidence and commitment. Obvious examples are induction processes orientated solely to the needs of school-leavers and Student Unions with no facilities for mature or part-time students. By the same token, processes and initiatives which affirm the place of mature students in higher education will strengthen commitment and determination to succeed.

        There are a number of successful examples of this. Transition programmes aimed at Access students preparing to enter degree programmes in the new academic year, introduce adults with many responsibilities to the likely peaks and troughs of Year One, where help may be available, and how to build peer support mechanisms. These should be standard practice for all "non-traditional" students about to enrol on degree programmes. However, Access routes are only one route through which highly motivated and capable mature students enter higher education. Some may have specific "skills gaps". For this reason, it is important for institutions to provide early diagnosis opportunities and targeted support programmes in maths, study skills and IT.

    (iii)  Academically, one of the key planks of support for mature students in higher education is feedback on academic work, furnished early on, and then at regular stages throughout their course. The absence of early academic feed-back on progress serves to re-inforce the uncertainty which many mature learners feel about their role in higher education. Availability of this kind of support depends on the quality and support of academic and administrative staff (the latter often acting as gate-keepers) and the extent to which this kind of activity is valued and prioritised in relation to research and broader bureaucratic responsibilities.

    (iv)  There is ample research evidence to support many of these suggestions, but higher education still lacks clear channels through which the distinct voice of lifelong learners may be listened to in the evaluation of provision and quality of support. In what is now the LSC sector, processes are being set in place to enable the voice of adult learners to contribute to the process of development. NIACE in particular has been active in this process and UACE/NIACE would be willing to work with the Government to explore the development of similar channels at HE level.

3.  Sensitive and effective measure for measuring staying-on rates

    (i)  As pointed out in the NIACE research, there is a need for comprehensive and compatible data collection systems measuring participation patterns of mature learners both within HEIs and across the boundary between the LSC sector and HE.

(ii)  For mature students studying on full-time or substantial programmes of higher education, definitions of withdrawal should reflect the availability and take-up of alternatives. Leaving a course should not automatically be viewed a `failure': reasons for leaving may include progression to a higher level award scheme, needs having been met without the need for a qualification, the need to return to employment, unforeseen family crises, or events such as moving house. Meanwhile, HEIs need to develop a better understanding of when withdrawal is due to expectations not being met, lack of advice, wrong advice, circumstances where early identification may enable alternative choices to be made.

    (iii)  For many part-time mature learners, measures of "drop-out" modelled on those used for full-time standard age students are inappropriate. Staying-on rates should not be measured solely in terms of "upward" progression. The "ladder" model of learning is an institutional construction which, while matching the progression of many full-time students, does not match the learning patterns of many part-time adult learners currently gaining benefit from their participation in higher education.

  We are happy to come and give oral evidence to support the submission or to supply further information if requested.


February 2001

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