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19 Oct 2005 : Column 303WH—continued

Part-Time Higher Education

4.43 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to draw to the House's attention the concerns of many of the tens of thousands of students engaged currently in Britain in part-time education. I must say that the experience is made even more pleasurable under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess.

My intention is not to try to bash the Government over their inequitable approach to full and part-time students. I hope instead to provide some constructive criticism and perhaps gently encourage the Government and, indeed, the Minister to review some of their current policies.

I am slightly disappointed, however; I made an offer to the Department for Education and Skills to give my speech to the Minister in advance, but that was not taken up. I am sure that we could have made even more progress had that happened.

The Minister has a reputation for being reasonable and thoughtful. In his defence, my e-mail was sent to his colleague the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning. That may explain why the Minister did not receive it.

Mr. Amess, you may be surprised to discover that this debate seems already to have had some impact on a rethink of Government policy. I have waited some 20 months for a review of the Higher Education Act 2004, and only yesterday, just hours before this debate, the Government announced steps towards addressing the imbalance between part-time and full-time students. I am sure that the Minister will assure me that that is coincidence, but he will forgive me for taking some small consolation from thinking that perhaps that is the closest that an Opposition Back Bencher can come to influencing Government policy.

As the Minister may know, the Open university is based in my constituency of North-East Milton Keynes. It is the only university dedicated to distance learning, and it supports about 180,000 students, both undergraduate and postgraduate. Nearly all the students at the OU are currently studying part-time. The OU was the world's first successful distance teaching university, and it retains its reputation by offering a vision for the future, as students and businesses demand a more flexible approach to learning. It was ranked among the top five UK universities in a national table on teaching quality by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. In a recent survey published by The Times Higher Educational Supplement, the OU came out top for student satisfaction. The Minister will agree that it should be congratulated on those notable achievements.

In recent years, there has been a steady increase in the number of students who undertake degree programmes part-time. Part-time students make up 41.7 per cent. of all higher education students; that is rise of 4.2 per cent. on last year. Understandably, there are many reasons why people undertake part-time study. These include furthering or changing their career, or just having an interest in the subject. A wide cross-section of society is attracted to part-time study, from mothers who wish to gain further qualifications while being primary carers, to
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retired people who wish to continue their education once they have the time and resources to do so. As we see, it is not a uniform group.

It is essential that everyone in society is afforded the same opportunity to further their education and develop themselves as and when they want. That is why I find it difficult to comprehend why the Government have made a clear distinction between those students who study full-time and those who do not. When the Government introduced student top-up fees, they clearly stated:

That is simply not the case. Students enrolled in part-time courses will have to pay their fees in advance, albeit pro rata. All the policy work done on the Higher Education Act 2004 concentrated on the full-time learner. It is clear to anyone that as a result the part-time sector was largely overlooked.

Over 90 per cent. of people who undertake part-time study are currently employed. Of that group, many are fortunate enough to have financial backing from their employer, who either meets the full cost of the course or just pays a contribution. Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills have stated that 60 per cent. of all part-time students have an employer subsidy, but that leaves 40 per cent. of part-time students who are self-funded. Indeed, at the OU a recent study showed that only 17 per cent. of undergraduates received support from their employers. Some 8 per cent. of students are supported by state benefits, and 8 per cent. are lone parents. We should also bear in mind that many of the sponsors are small employers who may be unable to meet the rise in fees, or who may be able to sponsor only half the number of students in future.

I have a real concern that levying an annual tuition fee on part-time students on a pro rata basis, as against a £3,000 full-time undergraduate fee for the same course, may act as a serious deterrent to participation by students. It should also be noted that, under the current policy, part-time students have no access to fee deferral in 2006. The message that the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning has been trying to send out is "study now, pay later." I wonder whether the Minister will agree with me in his reply that "pay now to study now" would be a more appropriate message to send to the 41.7 per cent. of higher education students who study part-time.

The part-time sector has been given no consideration as part of the Higher Education Act 2004. From my calculations, it has taken nigh on 20 months for the Government even to begin to address those issues. I understand that the Treasury has provided £1 billion in extra moneys to underwrite the new fee regime. I want to know how much of that money will assist part-time learners. As I see it, not one penny will go to part-time providers or to part-time students, as those learners will not have access to the generous packages of support in fee grants and loans that are presently available to full-time students.

That leaves education providers with a financial dilemma. Do they introduce huge fees to compete with the full-time sector, as the Government have suggested, or do they keep fees at the level that they know that the market can bear? If institutions adopt the former
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strategy, they risk losing large numbers of students; if the latter, they risk creating huge deficits in their budgets, which no institution can afford to do. I shall be interested to hear the views of the Minister on those matters.

Student support must be consistent across the board. I welcome the announcement made by the Secretary of State yesterday that the poorest part-time students will have their grants adjusted to bring them into line, pro rata, with the fee grant available to the full-time sector. I am sure that the Minister will be keen to expand on that announcement in his reply.

However, the Government need to go still further. In the announcement yesterday, the Secretary of State acknowledged that

If that is the case, why do I find myself asking what further steps the Government will be taking to continue to redress the balance?

I would like to see an increase in the institutional funding for the institutions that teach large numbers of      part-time students. That would recognise the additional costs that those institutions incur in supporting part-time learners and would put them on a level footing with the full-time sector.

There needs to be better targeting by the Government of part-time learners. The evidence suggests that part-time students are less inclined to take up loans and grants than full-time students. That is for a variety of reasons. Many part-time students are already carrying debts in the form of mortgages or personal loans, and are therefore reluctant to increase their debt. It is not easy to target information at part-time learners. Most full-time learners are given information at school or college, but because part-time learners are such a diverse group, it is much harder to ensure that they all receive adequate information. In the light of the announcement yesterday, I would be interested to know what publicity the Government are planning to make part-time students aware of their entitlements. Are we to expect a television or leafleting campaign?

I would also like to draw attention to the recent consultation paper by the Higher Education Funding Council. In the consultation, it is acknowledged that part-time learners do not get treated equally, although the figures have now been amended due to the announcement yesterday. The paper says that:

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However, the board felt it appropriate to leave things as they were and come back and review the situation once a clearer picture had been formed of the impact of the fees.

It is clear to me that the Government's rhetoric on support for life long learning is not matched by the right policy or public investment. We are told by the Chancellor:

It should be noted that those factors only apply if one is aged between 18 and 30 and participating in full-time education. The Government have systematically left out part-time students and adult learners from higher education plans. At a time when we are encouraging our work force to work longer and re-skill, it seems incredible to me that the tools are not in place to allow that.

I would be grateful if the Minister addressed five key questions. Why have the Government made a clear distinction between those students who study full-time and those who do not? Why was the part-time sector overlooked in the Government's review of higher education? Why do part-time students have to pay their fees up front? How much of the extra money provided by the Treasury will assist part-time learners? Finally, when will the Government be consistent in their treatment of full and part-time students?

4.56 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope) : I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) on securing this timely debate. Indeed, the timing could not be more appropriate given yesterday's announcement. I have to disabuse him of the notion that this debate was the trigger that prompted that announcement. As he knows, my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning announced the student funding arrangements for part-time undergraduate students for 2006. That announcement was an important one, and I shall explain why later.

I shall just take a moment to reflect on the importance of part-time education in general and the Open university in particular. I am delighted to say that in this country we have one of the strongest part-time undergraduate sectors in Europe. During the past decade, it has experienced vibrant growth, which we welcome. Part-time provision increases access to higher education for literally hundreds of thousands of students. There are now more than half a million in total, who, for whatever reason, are unable or unwilling to undertake full-time study. It is clear that part-time students like what they get.

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that the recent national student survey revealed students of the Open university, which is based in his constituency, to be the most satisfied in the country with those at that other dedicated part-time provider, Birkbeck college, close behind. What is more, a strong part-time sector is essential to our higher skills strategy, supporting people in work to enhance their skills and opportunities for vocational progression.
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Part-time provision is a success story of our higher education sector and at the centre of that success is the Open university. It is our only university dedicated to distance learning, educating a third of part-time undergraduates from all walks of life and drawn from every corner of the country. Our part-time sector has a proud history that is to be celebrated and nurtured.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I would like to take the opportunity to record my appreciation of his predecessor, Brian White, the former Member of Parliament for North-East Milton Keynes, and his parliamentary colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), for the tremendous work they have done during previous years and continue to do in promoting the Open university, celebrating its achievements and lobbying the Government for increased investment for part-time undergraduates and those institutions.

It has been this Government's aspiration to increase access to part-time study. I heard the hon. Gentleman—as we know, Mr. Amess, these are not necessarily party political debates—lambasting the Government for a failure to invest. I shall not remind him of the manifesto pledge of his party at the last election to cut £30 billion out of public spending; I suspect that that would not have put a lot more money into part-time undergraduate study. Indeed, before 1998, there was no fee support whatever, under previous Administrations, that was available to part-time undergraduates on low income.

In 1998, this Government introduced the first fee waiver schemes and, year-on-year, improvements have led to a statutory fee support of £590 for a student studying part-time at 50 per cent. intensity; there is more for those who study more intensely. There is also a course grant to cover the cost of studying of some £250. That support has been targeted at those students on the lowest incomes, quite rightly. The hon. Gentleman used those figures himself today; two-thirds of all part-timers are in full-time work on typical incomes. One third have their fees fully covered by their employer. In answer to one of the hon. Gentleman's questions about why we make the distinction, it is because a variety of students in part-time study have some of their fees paid for by their employer. If we were to make them equivalent to full-time students, we would be losing out on all that employer investment in their workforce.

For students who are earning a full-time wage, and whose fees are fully covered by their employer, the barriers to participation are not so much in covering the costs of the fee, but in ensuring the vocational relevance of provision and the flexibility of provision to fit around daily employment and the way in which they run their lives. We have worked hard to help institutions to work more closely with employers to achieve both those aims.

I welcome, in particular, some new work from the Higher Education Academy to extend understanding of the most interesting and innovative practice in work-based learning. I should like to focus today, however, on students with low incomes, and on the announcement that we recently made about those who really need our support, who are often people on benefits.

Mr. Lancaster : The Government say that 60 per cent. of part-time students have the support of their employers, but do not always focus on the fact that such
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support can take many different forms. Within that 60 per cent., it may be that employers are only giving part-time students time off work, or perhaps giving them money to buy books. That 60 per cent. figure can be slightly misleading, and I am not convinced that giving the Government credit for it is appropriate.

Phil Hope : The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but the essence of his question was why cannot part-time undergraduates be treated the same as full-time students. Clearly, the reason is that they are different. Some of them are in full-time work; some of them—a considerable number, a third—have their fees fully paid by their employer. To treat full-time students and part-time students as exactly the same, which the hon. Gentleman does, would not recognise the starting point, and would have unintended consequences of reducing the volume of resources available to deliver good-quality undergraduate courses.

Let me turn to the issues of the consequences and the inequalities, to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, in the introduction of variable fees for full-time undergraduates in 2006. He asked why the part-time sector was overlooked in Government provision. However, although part-time provision was not addressed in last year's Act, that was a conscious decision. It was not overlooked. We deliberately did not address that issue in the Act. Part-time fees have never been regulated in that way. We had and have no intention of changing that.

However—this is why the debate is timely—we recognise concerns from the Open university and others that consequences for part-time students may flow from the Act. Some institutions have argued that they are constrained in finding the true market for their provision because, generous as our fee support is, it is capped. This year, the full-time equivalent—the hon. Gentleman used the figure—amounts to some £1,180. Other institutions, by contrast, have argued that their geographical position and institutional profile will make it difficult to adjust their current diet of fees. Consequently, our imperative is to protect and sustain part-time provision by two broad means.

Yesterday, we announced a 27 per cent. increase in the level of statutory fee grant available to students on low incomes. That is a substantial increase by anybody's standards. The fee support for students studying at half pace will grow from £590 to no less than £750.

In addition, from 2006, we will adjust our access to learning fund—now that full-timers are set to benefit from generous new support—to provide significantly increased discretionary support for institutions to use to ensure that students on the lowest incomes can access higher education and sustain their participation in it. The allocation of the access to learning fund against part-time numbers will increase fourfold to £12 million by 2006 and will increase still more, spending reviews permitting. We are saying to those universities, "You know best where the financial barriers to participation lie. If they lie in meeting fees, here is a resource that can be used as additional fee support. However, if they lie in general hardship—for example, in covering the cost of child care—this is a resource that can be drawn on."

The combined package represents a step change in the level of fee support. It provides reassurance to institutions that they can feel free to find the market rate
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for their provision, knowing that the state will support those who need it most. Even that is not the whole story. Institutions also benefit from institutional funding—funding that goes not to the student, but to the institution—channelled through the Higher Education Funding Council. That is linked to part-time numbers. Such funding has grown over recent years.

Next month the HEFCE board will consider whether it is now appropriate to introduce further changes. That is not a decision that we can prejudge, but, as in the case of the changes to our student support package, it is a measure that will doubtless be given close attention by the officers of the Open university and all our higher education institutions.

I want to check that I have addressed all the questions that the hon. Gentleman raised. I covered why we see part-time students as different and I have explained that, essentially, they are treated differently for that reason. That relates to the core of his case. The way that we have handled this area in the past has meant that part-time undergraduate study has blossomed in the way that I described earlier. The fees measures that I have outlined today may not be the final word, but they do respond to the points that were raised with us over many months during the assiduous lobbying of the Government by his constituency predecessor and by his parliamentary neighbour.

Mr. Lancaster : Before the Minister finishes, I want to ask one more question. If I were a part-time student looking at the Higher Education Act, could he explain to me the difference between my word "overlooked" and his word "unaddressed"?

Phil Hope : Yes, but I do not want to get down to a detailed analysis of different words. "Overlooked" implies that we forgot to do something, but "unaddressed" implies that we decided not to do it. We decided not to do it for the reasons that I explained earlier; in other words, because we have a different strategy.

In conclusion, we have dealt with some of the points raised, but there may be more to come. In response to concerns raised in this debate and elsewhere, we have considered the impact of the new full-time regime on part-time providers. We want to deepen our understanding of the nature and composition of the group of people who study part-time to ensure that we
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are meeting all the different needs. There will be an opportunity further to review part-time provision alongside the full-time package in 2009.

It is important to recognise not only part-time students but the Open university. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it has a proud history. Most of us would agree with the judgment that the OU may have been one of the greatest achievements of Harold Wilson's premiership. Its success as an institution is irrevocably linked to its distinctiveness in offering new routes into higher education for people across the country and overseas by fitting learning into individuals' personal circumstances. We recognise that, because of its distinctiveness, it may be affected by the changes to full-time fees and so on. That is why we are taking a great deal of time and trouble, and engaging in many high-level discussions with the OU, to try fully to understand the consequences and how we best might respond.

The package that we announced yesterday matters greatly. We have had some excellent responses from Birkbeck, the Open university and other UK universities welcoming the announcement of the extra support for part-time undergraduates. There will be a step change in support for low-income students, freeing institutions to set fees as they think best. Institutional resources and freedom to find the best ways to support vulnerable students will grow.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned publicity. What is important about the existing information campaigns is that students are used to getting information in certain ways. Let us use those ways to get this message out to part-time students.

Subject to decisions of the HEFCE board, institutional funding may be greater as well. Taken together, I see a rosy future for part-time undergraduates and the Open university. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be a champion of that institution during the years ahead; perhaps only for four years, but I do not wish to stray into that territory. He can rely on this Government to support institutions such as the Open university and others that work with part-time undergraduates. We will give the greatest support we can and offer the greatest opportunities to part-time students so that they can receive the best possible learning.

Question put and agreed to.

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