Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 98

Submission from the University of Northampton


  1.  The University of Northampton very much welcomes the initiative of the Innovation, Universities and Skills (IUS) Committee to conduct an enquiry into the Government's recent decision to phase out institutional support for students taking second qualifications of an equivalent or lower level (ELQs) to their first qualification.

  2.  We have responded to HEFCE's invitation to consult on its proposals for implementing the Government's decision whilst noting that there has not been an opportunity to comment on the principle of the decision.

  3.  The University has welcomed the Government's commitment to widening participation; to enhancing opportunities for part-time study; to embracing the recommendations of the Leitch report for raising skills levels, including those at higher levels and to lifelong learning in general. As a business-facing University, Northampton is close to employers and to its students who are studying whilst working. The University is particularly committed to widening participation among those without qualifications at level 4 and upwards, especially those from "low participation neighbourhoods". However, in its present form, we believe the ELQ policy is ill-advised as it appears to run contrary to Government and HEFCE encouragement and support for part-time opportunities and reskilling/enhancement of the workforce.


  4.  We feel that the decision was taken without a sufficiently clear view of its impact on other Government higher education policies. The Government—and HEFCE—encourage individuals to update/reskill themselves over a lifetime of learning, whether or not the individual learner has already obtained a higher education qualification. Employers are encouraged to contribute to the cost of employees' upskilling. Many such programmes do not include a full qualification per se but specific modules.

  5.  To withdraw funding from institutions in respect of those with higher education qualifications who are returning to study for these purposes is a clear disincentive to retrain/upskill as institutions will inevitably be forced into charging "full cost" fees and employers are unlikely to make up to deficit. Indeed, the current decision would appear to apply to "chunks" or "bites" of learning, that are not full "qualifications".

  6.  It is this misleading of Ministers to refer in press statements to "second degrees" as all learning, whether a full award or an individual module, at an "ELQ" level comes within the Government's decision, subject to lying outside the Government and HEFCE's exclusions. Qualifications of professional bodies, often an essential career progression requirement, are at higher education levels equivalent or lower to undergraduate and some postgraduate qualifications. For example, some 60% of the students currently studying professional qualifications in the Northampton Business School are in effect ELQ students.

  7.  We acknowledge HEFCE's appreciation of the potential impact of the ELQ policy on part-time provision, both on the individuals themselves and on those institutions that have done most to develop flexible part-time provision. Many of these students may have care responsibilities and may be seeking to return to work, change their careers or enhance their life changes. Others may be working around their full-time job to enhance their qualifications. A large number of these students are not funded by their employers; there is no evidence to suggest that either these employers—or, indeed, those who do fund their employees—would be prepared to pay the still higher fees consequent upon the introduction of the ELQ policy. The policy is additionally likely to have a negative impact on "non-ELQ" students who attend a part-time course that has to close because without the ELQ students the course is not viable. Increasing the fees for non-ELQ students to cover lost fees is counter-intuitive. This lack of stability for part-time courses has serious implications for planning and staffing levels/contracts.

  8.  However, were there to be a case in principle for the redirection of funds towards first-time entrants into higher education, this University would be supportive of the exclusions already indicated by the Government and HEFCE but would propose that the exclusions be extended to all students studying part-time and to those wishing to follow whole or part elements of formally accredited professional qualifications which may be at the same or lower level as an award they may already hold.


  9.  As the ELQ policy is to be implemented from 2008-09, it does not seem logical to defer the application of the £20 million "supplement" for part-time students until 2009-10. Given HEFCE's current thinking on the introduction of ELQ policy, institutions will be affected immediately.

  10.  The "safety net" proposal is linked to the overall statistical basis on which the policy is being implemented. Institutions, by having funding "withdrawn", are in effect being fined for their successful implementation of government policy in the "base" year 2005-06 for which data are, in any case, essentially suspect as they were not collected formally to establish students who would have been "ELQ". Whilst institutions cannot expect to receive funding in 08-09 on behalf of categories of students that, following the consultation, are deemed to fall within the scope of the ELQ policy it is inequitable on institutions to "withdraw" funding (other than for continuing "ELQ" students) on the basis of the 05-06 HESES data.

  11.  More generally, given the fundamental nature of this shift in Government policy, it would have seemed more logical for the proposal to be considered as part of the comprehensive review of the current fees arrangements, scheduled for 2009.


  12.  We are supportive of the exemptions proposed by Government and HEFCE, but would extend these as proposed in paragraph 8 above.


  13.  We are particularly concerned at the impact on part-time students (see paragraph 7 above) and those who require professional or other additional qualification to progress in their careers and/or retrain to a different skill set. We acknowledge HEFCE's "co-funded" arrangements with employers, but take up is low, and it is highly unlikely that employers as a whole will be prepared to fund the deficit between current fee levels and "full" course costs.


  14.  This University is committed to increasing opportunities for part-time students who want to learn flexibly, whether at work, from home, or in the institution. We are also committed to working with employers in the Northamptonshire area to deliver appropriate higher level skills programmes for graduates and non-graduates alike. We have embraced the message of the Leitch report which is a vision for "21st century widening participation". The ELQ decision will impact strongly on the ability of such students to access this provision and will present additional pressure on the University in seeking to diverse its student body, particularly at a time, from 2010, when the numbers of 18 year olds is likely to decline.


  15.  The University hopes that the above comments are of help, and would be pleased to provide more information should the IUS Committee so wish.

January 2008

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