My Lords, I am pleased to rise to open this debate. Right now, in Westminster Abbey, a service is being held to mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS, an institution created under the outstanding post-war Labour Government of Clement Attlee. I am delighted to introduce a debate on another Labour achievement: the Open University, founded in the 1960s by the then Education Minister Jennie Lee—incidentally, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the NHS. The OU’s purpose was to promote greater equality of opportunity and widen access to the highest standards of education, endorsing those same values of civic life and mutual responsibility as the NHS. Like the NHS, cherished as it is, the OU also has current problems that threaten its survival. Next year it will be 50 years old.
In 2023, five years from now, another educational institution will celebrate its bicentenary. Birkbeck, of which I am proud to be president, was created in 1823 when philanthropist George Birkbeck pioneered a pattern of education by which working men—and it was working men in those days—could study while also earning a living. It was a system of part-time study that would lead to degree qualifications. To this day, it shares with the OU a commitment to part-time education, tutor-marked coursework and extended study that leads to full university degrees of international standing. There are of course other universities across the country that provide mature and lifelong learning as part of their student offer; several have over 30% of their students studying part-time. They too recognise the direction that future education provision should take and are keen to see it thrive. They too are confronted by problems. I would not trouble noble Lords with a history lesson that had no significance for today. I raise this debate because the needs are pressing, the system is in crisis and the Government have now the chance to address this in its policy review.
First then, are the needs. As a member of the Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence, I was made keenly aware of how much change to the labour market lies ahead. Many existing jobs will go, many jobs will be enhanced by AI and many new, as yet unknown jobs will be created. The one constant is change—ongoing change to the labour market and to the lives of individuals. The Government will need to plan for the negative effects of AI, and to plan to maximise benefits from it. New skills will be needed; retraining will become the norm; and individuals will need to expect shifting patterns of employment, portfolio careers and mid-life career changes. Retraining, as the Select Committee emphasised in its report, will become a lifelong necessity. The Government agree: at the inaugural meeting of the National Retraining Scheme, earlier this year, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, declared that,
“we need everyone, regardless of their age, to be able to gain the skills they need to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead”.
Such ideas are endorsed on every hand from every discipline. Sarah Harper, professor of gerontology at Oxford University, in evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision, declared that, with longer life expectancy, there is a need for longer working lives that has to be supported by a move to lifetime education.
Thus, we have the state affairs and the need. Now the crisis, for crisis there surely is: a catastrophic fall in numbers of part-time and mature students. The OU has been hit especially hard, its numbers falling by 30% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. Numbers at Birkbeck have suffered too. The numbers for part-time study are falling everywhere. Social mobility has crashed. The decline in mature students has disproportionately hit certain important courses. Between 2009-10 and 2016-17 the number of part-time mature nursing students fell by 49%.
Institutions have been tracking the reasons and it is quite clear that this steep decline was triggered when the Government raised the cap on part-time fees to £6,750 a year. Their effort to address the crisis by improving financial support for some part-time students through the introduction of maintenance loans has not gone nearly far enough. Restrictions on maintenance loans to certain subjects—the STEM subjects—leaves the humanities beleaguered.
Government policy increasingly sees higher education as a marketplace where students shop for qualifications rather than as centres of learning, broadening student horizons across the whole range of human knowledge. Into this marketplace have come new for-profit universities, some only recently granted degree-giving powers. They offer students long-distance learning towards degrees in the most popular subjects. The insights of face-to-face learning are undervalued and under threat.
Other considerations also explain the collapse. There is no longer a pool of young people denied tertiary education: sixth-form take-up of university places is at an all-time high. Then there is austerity. Mature part-time students faced with the continuing levels of austerity have become debt averse. Many have mortgages to pay and young family commitments. With such responsibilities, taking on further loans is a push too far.
That the Government are aware of all that is evident in their establishment of a post-18 review, which we all welcome. It has now completed its consultations and is expected to report later this year. This is a major opportunity and one that must not be missed. The Higher Education and Research Act and the creation of the Office for Students have ushered in a new era. A Lords amendment to that legislation established that the Office for Students has a specific legal duty to consider different forms of learning, including part-time study and distance learning. It must now deliver on that commitment. I ask the Minister to ensure that the post-18 review addresses a major review of student finance and that it considers different policy responses for different types of students. It must reappraise the availability of maintenance grants and the restrictions on maintenance loans, and it must further relax restrictions on equivalent or lower qualifications, ELQs. I ask, above all, that it prioritises mature students and lifelong learning—
I think that it is a contributory factor. I certainly do not deny it being brought in but I am constantly interested in revising the existing situation to make it better. That is why I raised it.
Above all, the Government should prioritise mature students and lifelong learning as the key to the country’s economic future and continuing prosperity. The needs are critical but the means are there. I am delighted to see so many speakers of experience and authority in this debate, and I am glad that they are here, even though the time for the debate has been cut short. I urge the Government to rescue a sector of education that has served, and continues to serve, students of all ages and backgrounds. I beg to move.
My Lords, the whole House should be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for initiating this debate. I declare an interest in that my wife, who was born and educated in Canada and who never went to university, has recently started an Open University undergraduate course in history and history of art. I am already impressed with the variety of essay subjects she has had to cover, from Antony and Cleopatra to Stalin and Khrushchev, religious dissent in the 18th century, the art of Benin, and colonial attitudes to African societies. I am also impressed by the attention to detail in the marking of her essays.
I asked my wife to obtain her tutor’s views on the state of the OU and she replied as follows, giving me permission to quote her views. The most important point she made was that after the vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, resigned,
“the first thing the acting vice-chancellor did was scrap the ‘Students First’ brand which just about everyone working for the OU found to be toxic. It implied we had previously been putting something else first, and many, including me, found this to be an insult”.
Her final comment was:
“Most of my colleagues have felt so impotent having to stand by and watch whilst the OU has been forced into some kind of weird and inappropriate business model”.
I refer now to the petition organised by Change.org to give an indication of the concerns about the previous vice-chancellor. The petition states:
“The detrimental changes that have occurred include tutorial system changes, meaning that many students are allocated a tutor with whom they couldn’t possibly attend a tutorial”— due to geographical location—
“and therefore have to attend a tutorial with another tutor; often leading to confusion on assessment criteria. Furthermore, the Open University has continued to alter the way they present their modules, moving away from print books towards online material. This is despite many students voicing their preference of print books to work with”.
A final issue were his comments,
“claiming that Open University academics ‘don’t teach’. The blatant disregard for the work and effort put in by OU academics leads to the final conclusion by many that Peter Horrocks needs to be replaced as Vice-Chancellor in order to save the Open University from irrelevance”.
In the time available, I want to make a very few points. The number of part-time entrants to higher education across the UK has fallen by 47.5% since 2008-09, with all types of course affected. The most striking fall was in those enrolling in foundation courses, certificates and diplomas. A 2014 report said that,
“falls in employment – particularly in the public sector”, have been a major contributing factor.
My Lords, I begin by reinforcing what my noble friend Lady Bakewell said on the principle of lifelong learning. I have little doubt that all speakers in this debate will accept this principle. It is of course absurd to think that we have finished learning at the age of 21 or 22. We need to continue learning throughout our lives and to be helped to do so by access to education and training. Therefore, we need to invest in adults, not just young people, studying in universities and colleges. This is necessary first to enhance skills and knowledge and, secondly, to provide social justice and create social mobility.
At the higher education level, there are two institutions that focus on part-time undergraduate courses: Birkbeck and the Open University. I was privileged to be the head of Birkbeck for 10 years. What motivated me most was the commitment, determination and enthusiasm of its students studying in the evening, coping with families and jobs, and making sacrifices to achieve their educational goals. Those who have worked at the OU will have had similar experiences. Both institutions have been threatened by the collapse in part-time student numbers. Birkbeck has been forced, for the first time, to admit full-time undergraduates, and the OU has had to slash its courses and sack staff. Birkbeck will soon celebrate its 200th anniversary and the OU its 50th. We should do all we can to ensure that their special remit continues and that their celebrations are real.
Many other universities offer part-time undergraduate provision, especially post-1992 institutions. Sadly, many research universities have done too little for part-timers. FE colleges, however, have made a considerable impact in supporting them. Too often their contribution is forgotten, and the Government have not provided them with the resources that they need. Perhaps the Minister will say why.
The main cause of the collapse in part-time numbers is the foolish decision by the coalition Government to treble tuition fees. Of course, they probably needed to go up—but to treble them in one go! As my noble friend has already said, part-time mature students with mortgages and families are both debt adverse and price conscious. They have opted out because they will not take the risk of more debt. I applaud the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, the Minister who was responsible, for now expressing his regret, but I am puzzled that he did not see it at the time.
Will the Government make three specific changes? Will they provide a part-time premium to universities and colleges to promote the supply of part-time courses? Will they stop relying on their solution of maintenance loans for part-time students? Few of them will take them up, since the effect will be simply to increase their debt further. Thirdly, will they reduce the level of fees for part-time courses in line with any premium provided for universities, so that part-time students are not burdened by such harsh loans?
Lastly, will the Government remember that many part-time mature students are from disadvantaged backgrounds? If they are serious about promoting social mobility and genuine in this aim, they should urgently address this problem.
My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for introducing this debate. She is a great champion of part-time and adult education, which is an enthusiasm I share—as, indeed, we share concerns over the Open University. I wafted from school to university and sort of worked for three years to get my degree. My sister did an OU degree while working full-time. Her commitment, dedication and hard work makes her degree a far greater achievement than mine ever was.
The OU was a visionary initiative when it was founded in 1969, and has been transformational for so very many people. It has opened horizons and opportunities to those enthusiastic to learn, many of whom missed out on education the first time round, and many, as we have heard, from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet we have seen a catastrophic drop in numbers in recent years.
I was invited a while back to an OU degree ceremony at the Barbican, where Joan Armatrading was being awarded an honorary degree. In her speech, this internationally renowned singer and musician said that her greatest achievement was her OU degree. She was on world tours, before the days of internet or email, and in each country would have to find a post office and the last posting date for her assignments to get them back to the UK to be marked. What energy, what dedication, and how well deserved her results.
The ceremony had hundreds of people—some quite young and some very old. One woman must have been at least nine months pregnant, and there were members of the military in uniform—a total mix, all of them brimming with a well-earned sense of achievement. Celebrating such success was exhilarating. It is seriously bad news that the numbers have dropped.
Similar work is undertaken by Birkbeck. I declare an interest as a newly appointed fellow of the college, a great honour from an institution which I have long held in very high regard. Since 1823, it has championed the importance of educating the working people of London, with its evening teaching enabling people to work and study, as does the OU, and through study to aim high and to be ambitious in their life goals. This is good for social mobility and good for the economy. Yet Birkbeck, too, has seen a fall in its numbers.
How can the Government justify policies which result in such worthwhile institutions finding their numbers so reduced? We know that further education colleges are critical to continuing education, yet they, too, are suffering from loss of funding, a reduction in students able to self-fund and reduction in the number of employers willing to support employees through part-time study.
When will the Government release colleges from the tortuous and pointless demands of GCSE maths and English resits? This does nothing but entrench a sense of failure for young people who may have great practical talents where these GCSEs will be entirely irrelevant. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government are rethinking their damaging obsession with these academic subjects? If colleges could spend precious time and resources instead on adult and continuing education, it would make a significant and worthwhile contribution to society and the economy. I hope the Minister can reassure us that the Government are not only listening but acting to support part-time learners, whose skills are essential to the workforce.
My Lords, it is with considerable surprise that I find myself here today making my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House—you will appreciate that I will have to be brief. I have received nothing but kindness and encouragement since I arrived. The staff in Black Rod’s office, and Black Rod herself, are so helpful, as are the doorkeepers and all the staff and Members who have helped me feel so much at ease. I owe particular thanks to my supporters, my noble friends Lady Hayter and Lady Chakrabarti, who both gave me moral support at my introduction but were also ready to catch me if I keeled over.
In my early political life, I was a member of the Independent Labour Party, so I cannot help but reflect on the ILP members who graced this place: Fenner Brockway, Neil Carmichael, Barbara Castle and, of course, Jennie Lee. Jennie Lee understood the value of education. She came from a mining village in Fife and, unusually for a working-class woman, gained a university degree. She was the first woman to be elected as a Labour MP in Scotland. She was only 24, but had 10 years of campaigning and public speaking experience. A maiden speech held no terrors for her—lucky woman. Many decades later, Harold Wilson gave her responsibility for establishing a University of the Air. She felt that adult education should be more than,
“dowdy and mouldy … old-fashioned night schools and … hard benches”.—[
She wanted a university to match the best available anywhere.
As an Open University graduate, I have a first-hand appreciation of the high standard of its courses. The downside when I was a student was that the courses ran right through the summer. Fellow students could easily spot one another at airports or on beaches because of the heavy course books that never left their side.
I know that in recent years lecturer contact with students has been reduced and that the OU has closed most of its regional offices, but worse could still be to come. Its lecturers say that the latest round of cuts will,
“destroy the OU as we know it”, by reducing it simply to “a digital content provider”. Instead of being part of a learning community, students will be dependent on “virtual” support from staff and fellow students. There will be only limited opportunities for face-to-face contact and working in collaboration with fellow students.
For many students, the OU is the only realistic way to access higher education, but, as with other higher education institutions, the cost creates a barrier. The OU has a better record than most in reaching disadvantaged students, but the cost can still be prohibitive.
When I was an OU student in Scotland more than 25 years ago, I studied the same courses as students in the rest of the UK and, significantly, paid the same fees. Now, an OU student in Scotland pays only one-third of what a student from the rest of the UK has to pay.
Being able to offer people a second chance for learning or to take part in lifelong learning should be valued in every part of the UK. We should pool our resources to make sure that the Open University lives up to its aims, which were described by Jennie Lee as being,
“a great independent university which does not insult any man or any women whatever their background by offering them the second best, nothing but the best is good enough”.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick, who also hails from my home city. It is wonderful to see her here joining us in this House. I welcome her, as do all our colleagues. It is clear from what she has said that her experience will be invaluable to this House. She has a well-documented commitment to social justice. I should let your Lordships know that she edited a book, What Would Keir Hardie Say? I have no doubt that, in the months and years to come, she will tell us what Keir Hardie would say about the state of our world at the moment.
I want also to congratulate my noble friend Lady Bakewell on bringing this debate before the House, but I am sorry that we have so little time to speak. I agree with her about celebrating the Open University and in expressing regret about what is currently happening. Education is a social good as well as a good for the individual. It hugely benefits society as a whole to have a well-educated and well-trained populace, and learning is central to our economic success and social cohesion. It is particularly important just now as we address national skills shortages and the challenges of a changed world of work, an environment in which there is huge technological change.
Those who are disadvantaged educationally are also disadvantaged economically and socially. We have to place learning at the heart of a national common purpose and draw into learning and training those who missed out the first time round and have come late to the party, but who want a change of direction. Turning education into a commodity has not served our nation well, but I am afraid that that is what is happening. Turning universities, colleges of further education and the Open University into businesses is not appropriate. While all of these institutions absolutely should be business-like in the way they work, they should not operate as business models, as they are currently being asked to do.
Large numbers of young people still leave school and begin adult life in need of compensatory education. School does not work for many people for reasons that are often related to their family circumstances, but sometimes it is because they have breathed in a sense of failure at an early stage in their lives and they do not go on to do what they could do. We see a great deal of thwarted potential in our society. However, a moment will come for someone in their late 20s, 30s or sometimes their 40s when they want a second chance. I have seen this because my name is borne by a small foundation that gives bursaries to people in this category. They know about real hardship. The financial model and the insistence on paying for everything is now putting them off and it is the reason we are seeing such a drop in the number of people taking up those second chances. I could tell noble Lords many stories of triumph over adversity, but we have not got the funding right.
I want to make two brief points. The Open University was a visionary initiative and what we need now is a new vision. I suggest that we draw on lottery funds that were put to one side for the millennium projects in order to create a “learning nation fund”. We should create a learning regeneration fund to go to the parts of the country where there are no opportunities but there has been great neglect. In that way, people would be given those second chances. We should also create more pathways from further education into higher education, thus giving people the know-how for their lives. Let us celebrate continuing education and the institutions that deliver it, in particular the Open University, Birkbeck and many others. I am about to become the chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, which does this work very well. These institutions are part of the lifeblood of our nation. Let us seize the chance provided by the policy review to revitalise these educational opportunities.
My Lords, I declare not only an interest in but a deep love for the Open University as I am proud to serve as its chancellor. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. I am sure that she will hate me for saying this, but it seems appropriate that on the day that we are celebrating the NHS and the Open University, we can also honour her as a great national asset.
As many other speakers have said, the Open University is an extraordinary and important institution which we must all continue to support. It is the only university in the world where access is open to anyone, whatever their background and previous educational record. Some 24,000 of the Open University’s 174,000 current students are disabled, more than many universities have in their sum total. The Open University has deep links with military personnel and veterans, providing programmes to help them back into education. Moreover, it has had extraordinary success with prisoners and is the only official academic institution working to help them get back into education. These are all fundamental tools for social mobility.
Unknown by many people, the average age of an Open University student is 28, and over 75% of our students are in work. As I say at our degree ceremonies, just after I have made the students do a Mexican wave—noble Lords should not worry; I am not going to attempt to do that now—the OU is not part-time learning, it is double-time learning. These are people who have put education above many priorities in what are often already stressed and complicated lives. You need only look at their faces as they walk across the stage to collect their degrees and you will see the emotion, the relief and the dedication in them. I am not a person who is drawn to tears easily, but I find myself fighting them back, often unsuccessfully, as I see the incredible dedication of the learners at our university.
As has been stated, this has not been an easy time for the university. The macroclimate, the funding situation and the decline in part-time learners have to a degree been compounded by some of the internal challenges. It is not my role as chancellor to behave like an executive. I simply stress to noble Lords and the wider communities beyond that the Open University is still an innovative place and still has a bold vision for the future. Next year is our 50th year, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, alluded to, and there will be some extraordinary and interesting things happening. But we do need to rebase the university for the modern age. No one believes that it should be a digital-only university; everyone believes in the power of the combined ways of learning. But we also have to be realistic that this is 2018, not 1968. Things need to be and to feel different. I am a firm believer that we need to build wider partnerships into different communities, with employers and with government, with the skills we need to build a modern and resilient society.
It is an irony—more than an irony, a tragedy—that at a time when, more than ever, we need continued learning as part of our culture, there has been such a dramatic fall in part-time learning. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, who I welcome to the House, said in her brilliant maiden speech, Jennie Lee, who is such an inspiration—I wish I could have met her—said in 1973, “We cannot strive for anything other than the best for people, whatever their background”. I will do my absolute best to ensure that the Open University is fit for purpose for the future. I thank noble Lords for their support, but that is not enough. We need government support as well. I ask the Minister: what is the cohesive plan for part-time and continued learning? What signposts will learners have to understand the options open to them? What funding support do the Government plan on giving?
My Lords, it is an absolute scandal that we have only three minutes to talk on this very important subject. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, who introduced this debate so brilliantly, for taking only 10 minutes, which perhaps gives us a little leeway.
If the last coalition Government and the previous Labour Government had set out deliberately to destroy part-time education, they could not have been more successful than they have been. Of course, that is not the case: it is the unintended consequence of two reforms. One, which the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, mentioned in her speech and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, also referred, was the decision to triple tuition fees and create a funnel that is driving people into doing traditional three-year degrees, as opposed to other forms of higher education.
In part-time education, the results have been absolutely catastrophic. I hope that we will have more time to debate this when we debate the report of the Economic Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, which, in chapter 5, deals with many of these issues. I am very much in agreement with what the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, had to say. From 2010 to 2016, the Open University saw an 80% fall in sub-degree level qualifications. There has been a 60% fall in part-time education over that period. At Birkbeck, which the noble Baroness knows so much about, the figures are astonishing: a 64% fall in people doing part-time degrees and a 68% fall in sub-degrees.
Then there is the decision to bring in the ELQ rule, which says that students get no support, including tuition fees and maintenance loans, for qualifications that are equivalent or lower than they once held. How on earth are they meant to retrain or advance if that is the position? Indeed, before the rule was implemented by the previous Labour Government, 90% of those people were part-time students. Why are we surprised that the number of part-time students has fallen? For as long as I have been involved, the rhetoric of successive Governments has said that we need to increase our skills and people’s ability to retrain and to have lifelong learning, yet the financial policies and systemic structure are driving things in exactly the opposite direction.
Why has Birkbeck seen such a catastrophic reduction? Fifty per cent of its students were ELQ students; now it is 5%. Of course, they now have to find the fees and because the fees are higher, costs have gone up. Therefore, the burden on people who have to look after their families—and all the other pressures on people at present—is even greater. Even if they can get a loan because of the government changes in respect of STEM subjects, which benefit a few hundred people, they have to pay it back before they complete their course because part-time courses take longer than four or five years, as a rule.
It is not only the funding of students that is responsible for the decline. If institutions find that no students are coming, they do not run the courses. We have seen a catastrophic fall in the number not only of students but of opportunities, because the funding is not there. We need a radical change and we need to acknowledge that mistakes have been made. Funding is key to this. Why was it changed? George Osborne worked out that making the money follow the student—who would be largely dependent on tuition fees—would result in no increase in the public sector deficit. Instead, it will be met 30 years down the line when the bill will be £1.2 trillion. We have to be realistic about the true cost of higher education and we need urgent reform. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for introducing the debate, albeit that there is little time to discuss it.
My Lords, it is always nice to follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, especially on the rare occasions when we speak on the same side of the argument. It is a particular delight to follow my noble friend Lady Bakewell in bringing this important subject before the House.
Higher education is a devolved area. The Welsh Government have been active on this subject and may have some light to throw on the situation we are discussing today. They are introducing a new student support package, the only such system in the United Kingdom, to offer parity of support for full-time and part-time students alike. New part-time students starting their studies in September, in two months’ time, will be eligible for a non-means-tested grant of up to £750 towards their living costs, plus a further means-tested £3,750, dependent on household income and study intensity. Students who do not receive the full grant amount can apply for maintenance loans, ensuring that there is no barrier to study.
This approach, treating full-time and part-time students equally, may be a measure that addresses the “unforeseen consequences” described by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. It is a progressive measure that has the potential to make a significant difference to the number of part-time students in Wales. For instance, the new funding arrangements are already generating significantly increased interest in studying with the Open University in Wales. The university there is experiencing substantial increases in early registrations for study in the coming year, with figures currently running around 30% higher than at the same point last year. It is hoped that the UK Government can learn from the Welsh experience. Let Wales bring in the cavalry.
That underlines the importance of a flexible learning incentive. I am the father of a child who got her second degree from Birkbeck. My career started as a result of the Robbins report in 1963, with new universities and expansion of the sector. Many of my friends went to teach in the Open University at the end of that decade. It was a great moment for us to be alive—oh, that it were so for our children and our children’s children.
My Lords, this is one of those debates when you could spend all your time saying that you agree with everybody who has gone before you. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has started something that we are in only the first act of. She is clearly pointing out something that has gone wrong because, whatever is said about the Open University, it has been a tremendous success and has the structure to reach people who are not being trained when everybody else is. This is one occasion when, very boringly, I agree with virtually every syllable said by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. We have to try to preserve the Open University and use it. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, pointed out two things: ELQs and fees. We have to find some way of removing these barriers because reskilling is not always upskilling and upskilling may require some reskilling to get people ready.
One thing that the Open University has a tremendous the capacity for is credit transfer. It is a conduit between different skills being credited in another institution. We have probably not made the best of this institution yet. We have a structure and redistribution and we could get people ready for study courses somewhere else by using that. If we get radical and look at this as part of the university sector as opposed to something in a corner screaming and fighting for its bit of attention—all higher education institutions have a tendency to do that—and bring this together, we will get better results.
The Open University has a tremendous reputation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, said, it is probably the best university for helping the disabled. We have to try to use this national system for reaching the public to enable us to get the best out of the higher education system as a whole. Unless the Government realise that and support it, we will be throwing the baby out with the bath water, and possibly its sibling as well.
My Lords, the biggest provider of part-time learning services is learndirect. Although it has contracts with clients such as Sainsbury’s, the quality of training and supervision has drawn much criticism and dissatisfaction. We now learn that last week learndirect, on the verge of bankruptcy, was sold by a private equity company for a nominal sum. That was followed by an announcement that 22 senior managers are leaving the company. Does the Minister think that part-time learning is a suitable commodity for commercial and financial manipulation this kind? Obviously, our colleges will have to pick up the pieces. We are going to have to do a lot better than this, because delivering these skills and the productivity that will enable us to exploit new technologies and make our way in the world post Brexit is a central pillar of our industrial strategy. The industrial strategy recognises that without part-time education, even with a high level of employment, people will be stuck in low-paid jobs.
As the Taylor report indicated, the world of work is becoming more flexible, more connected yet more remote. In their response to the Taylor report, the Government promised an assessment of these jobs and what needs to be done so that people in the so-called gig economy and on zero-hours contracts will have the encouragement and the means to take on part-time education. By their very nature, these gig companies have very little motivation to encourage part-time learning. Surely all this is part of the need to improve and build on the current work of the Careers and Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service for advice to young and old about part-time education. Is this work in progress? It is promised in the industrial strategy.
Some think that one way to improve these services is for contact with the training organisation or college not to finish when the course ends. Some colleges or organisations are trying to work out how they can continue the relationship and find out how well the skills and knowledge of past participants are keeping up with change. In this way, they hope to tell people when they need to return for an update or an upgrade. Will this be introduced as part of the national retraining scheme mentioned by my noble friend Lady Bakewell? Such a scheme was promised by the end of this Parliament. Can the Minister give us an update? Thanks to my noble friend, who introduced this report in such a brilliant manner, I think we are all convinced that enabling people to study part-time while earning, in order to improve their skills and knowledge, benefits not only the individual but the economy and society as a whole. The industrial strategy commits the Government to making it happen. Is this work being done?
My Lords, I am an A-class student of the Open University. I hasten to add that this is not for academic ability but because I was a student joining in the first year, 1971. My wife enrolled in 1972 and by the end of 1976 we produced between us two BA degrees and two wonderful baby boys. In the time available I wish to comment positively about the Open University in Northern Ireland.
The number of part-time Open University students in Northern Ireland is increasing. At the moment we have 3,967 students. Interestingly, in the Republic of Ireland there are 1,077 OU students. Students in Northern Ireland may apply to the Student Finance Northern Ireland fund for a part-time fee grant or fee loan. Part-time student loans were introduced for the first time in the 2017-18 academic year. The Open University in Northern Ireland has introduced a significant paid work experience programme for its part-time students, initially working with companies in the STEM sector. There has been strong, positive feedback from employers about the work ethic, resilience and focus of OU students. Several have been given full-time jobs before completing their placements.
Furthermore, the Open University in Northern Ireland is now a major provider of graduate nurses to the Northern Ireland health sector. Its unique part-time programme works with healthcare assistants to develop their skills and knowledge: those staff remain in their substantive roles, so they bring their new skills directly to the work environment. This partnership programme is with the Department of Health, the Northern Ireland health trusts, the Royal College of Nursing and Unison. Perhaps this could be replicated throughout the Open University.
The UK Government have taken steps to promote part-time learning, such as relaxing the equivalent lower qualification restriction in STEM subjects, introducing maintenance loans for part-time students and consulting on accredited degrees. While these are welcome, they are piecemeal. It is clear that fundamental action is needed.
My Lords, the crisis of the Open University, which has entailed a massive loss of income and a halving of student numbers, is rooted in the Conservative Higher Education Act 2012. The administration of the Open University has reacted to the financial crisis by declaring large-scale staff redundancies. It has also attempted to make savings by closing seven out of nine regional centres, which are where OU students gather for contact with each other and with their tutors. As well as declaring mass redundancies and closures of courses and regional centres, the proposals of the vice-chancellor, who has since resigned, included the elimination of the costly research activities of the university. Henceforth, the university was to become a provider of online courses, to be propagated via the world wide web from a platform called FutureLearn. The resulting MOOCs— massive open online courses—which are freely available to consumers, were extolled by David Willetts, the erstwhile Science Minister—now the noble Lord, Lord Willetts—as
“revolutionising conventional models of formal education”.
The current offerings of FutureLearn are threadbare and compare unfavourably with the traditional course materials of the Open University. They are more appropriate to recreational education than to serious academic study. The idea that university lecturers can be replaced en masse by static electronic material, which is attractive to administrators and paymasters seeking to reduce costs, is both fatuous and dangerous. If there were any validity in it, we would have seen the growth of academic libraries instead of the growth of universities.
I turn to the wider issue of the importance of adult education to the welfare of our society and our economy, and the seeming disregard of this by the Conservative Government. It is an oft-repeated truism that, if we are to profit from the scientific and technological advances that are occurring with increasing rapidity, we need a workforce that is constantly learning new skills and upgrading existing ones. This can be achieved only by a systematic programme of adult education and re-education. In many ways, we have regressed. Our provision of adult education is not what it once was. Large industrial enterprises are no longer as keen as they once were to sponsor the education of their workforce. Instead, we hear a chorus of complaints, mainly against our universities, about the skills shortages in the workforce.
In the meantime, opinions have changed regarding the purpose of education. The Russell report, which was presented to Margaret Thatcher when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science in the early 1970s, emphasised the necessity of providing,
“the fullest opportunities for personal development and for the realization of a true conception of citizenship”.
Nowadays the emphasis is on manpower planning. The Russell report was cold-shouldered by the Conservative Government, and their negative attitude has continued to affect the provision of adult education.
The attitude of the Labour Party has been very different. The Open University, established in 1965 by the Wilson Government, had its immediate antecedent in the Workers’ Educational Association, which was strongly supported by the Fabian socialist movement. The WEA embodied the spirit of the dissenting academies, which had a much earlier origin. Our party has been characterised by a studious and a pragmatic approach to all manner of social and economic issues, which has gone hand in hand with its approach to learning and education. It has tended to reject political and ideological dogmas in favour of careful policy-making. In this respect, it is very different from the party in power. The Conservatives express impatience with the advice of experts. They are liable to ignore issues of detail that can detract from the clarity of ideologically motivated policies. We are presently witnessing, in connection with the Brexit agenda, some of the most damaging effects of this Conservative mindset.
My Lords, like others, I warmly welcome this debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for introducing it so ably. Student numbers in part-time education are moving dramatically in the opposite direction to the one I am sure we all want to see, potentially with really dangerous consequences for our economy and society.
The Open University has its headquarters within the diocese of Oxford, in Milton Keynes. It is a remarkable institution, as others have said, which has pioneered access to higher education and the use of technology, supported by face-to-face learning. It remains at the forefront of all of that, and I echo the affirmation others have made of the need to preserve, develop and build up its contribution to our national life and its international reach.
Together with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, I have recently been a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence. As we have heard, we examined the changing nature of work. AI can drive our economy forward, but it is a disruptive technology. We know that many jobs will go. Some new jobs will be created. It is not clear what the net effect will be. But we do know two things.
First, the effects of job reductions will not be even across the economy; they will disproportionately affect traditional post-industrial areas and sections of society. The Centre for Cities estimates that 27% of current jobs will be lost by 2030 in Doncaster and Wakefield—towns which already have a higher level of unemployment. That is really significant for those communities.
Secondly, what can be done to mitigate the effects of these massive societal changes? The key is what we are discussing today. It is the only key that has emerged from the work done so far: a really significant—bigger than we have yet imagined—proactive investment in part-time, continuing, lifelong education, accessible in every place and to every part of society. We need a more radical reimagining of our continuing education than the Government have yet embarked on: a part-time education revolution for the 21st century equivalent to the large education revolutions of the past that we heard described.
The technology that is so disruptive to jobs can actually help us achieve that—supported by face-to-face and community learning. This new deal needs to be means tested, as we have heard, at the point of delivery, to prevent the stagnation of much of our economy; it needs to focus on the building of character and the formation of wisdom, as the Open University and others have done in the past; it has to be about more than knowledge and skills; and it needs to be focused disproportionately on the areas of greatest need.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I declare my interests as set out in the register. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on securing this debate and on the way in which she introduced it. I, too, was lucky enough to serve alongside her on the Artificial Intelligence Select Committee, and what we all saw from the noble Baroness there was that it will be a long time before artificial intelligence gets close to the brain power stored in her skull. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, and her excellent maiden speech.
In the time that I have, I will focus on two areas: the fourth industrial revolution and unpaid internships. It seems clear that we are in a time of tumultuous change, where everything is changing: the tools we use, how we work, where we work and when we work. If this is indeed the case, it seems clear that education—higher, further, primary, secondary—needs also to change, not just to be relevant but to address the ongoing needs of individuals. Everything that education should have been, it now absolutely needs to be. It seems that flexibility needs to be at the core of that.
I take every opportunity to crowbar unpaid internships into every debate, and I got my Private Member’s Bill through your Lordships’ House. How can someone, if they are forced to do an unpaid internship, hope to undertake part-time or further education? It is most likely that the people who most want to secure internships and part-time and continuing education—if we believe in social mobility, which I do and which the Government and Prime Minister have stated a commitment to—will not be undertaking unpaid internships or part-time, continuing education. They will be locked out of both routes to social mobility, locked out of both routes to being able to play their full part in our society, and we will not be able to address all the social, cultural and spiritual issues, and address the productivity crisis, that we have.
On those people who the figures show are not able to continue part-time education and have dropped out, I ask the Minister what research the Government have done on who is in those groups. What are they now doing, and what is the Government’s view of that situation? Does the Minister agree that it is all about flexibility? Without that flexibility matched with relevant resource, people will continue to be unable to participate.
Do the Minister and the Government believe that the current student finance system is fit for purpose? Is the 6% rate in any sense realistic, satisfactory or designed to achieve the policy objectives and educational outcomes that we all want?
Ultimately, it seems pretty straightforward. We either have part-time education, continuing education, higher education and further education founded on flexibility, or we fail.
My Lords, I welcome this debate, which was brilliantly introduced by my noble friend Lady Bakewell, at this critical time. The UK needs to increase the number of those taking part in part-time education, not the other way around. The OU and many other educational institutions have played, and will play, an important role.
The OU has been a great leader in the UK and abroad. I worked with the OU on a TV programme about air pollution dispersion—still important, as we discussed earlier this afternoon. It was broadcast in the middle of the night, whereas my son’s history programme was broadcast at about 8pm. That is the world we live in. My programme, however, which was made 30 or 40 years ago, is still used around the world. There are many other institutions providing part-time courses, in companies and governmental institutions such as the Met Office. In fact, incoming chief executives were given a very stiff day of introduction in the courses at the Met Office.
There could be much more collaboration between different types of part-time courses. During part-time lecturing to industrial engineers at what is now Coventry University, in the 1960s and 1970s, I learnt how such part-time courses can have the practical focus needed by industry—a focus that differs considerably from, while complementing, the fundamental courses taught at universities. This needs to be understood by educational policymakers concerned about the UK’s shortage of apprentice-level engineers and specialists. For example, there is a tremendous need for practical courses in innovative construction—areas such as green technology and remote offsite construction—which the House of Lords committee has just been looking at.
In the United States, however, universities have an alternative approach that has so far not been mentioned. There, part-time further education is integrated into full-time education: part-time students attend courses organised for full-time students. Seeing this in Arizona, I was very impressed that such part-time students can bring new and practical ideas—sometimes quite revolutionary—of value to the whole class.
Advanced postgraduate and doctoral part-time courses are also very important for specialised topics. In London there are many evening courses, in all sorts of places, on finance, but very few advanced, open evening courses of the kind that are easy to find in Chicago or Los Angeles. We tried it in London by setting up the Lighthill Institute, which I helped to run for a few years, offering evening courses in mathematics and advanced technology. I am afraid, however, that it no longer exists.
Finally, the OU is justly famous around the world for its teaching and research—for example space research—but is uniquely distinguished for its highly original and professional TV programmes. My point is that, while other universities also make online programmes, the OU needs to expand its excellent programmes and to continue its broad approach using the greatest talents from around the world.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for enabling this debate, which is particularly timely given the recent excellent report by the Economic Affairs Committee and the Government’s forthcoming review of post-18 education, which will inevitably wish to address the problems that part-time higher education has faced over the past few years—and to find urgent solutions. I declare my interest: I was privileged to be a member of staff of the Open University for some 34 years, from the heady days of the early 1970s to my retirement. Those early years saw the Open University establish itself in terms of both the extensive demand for distance-learning opportunities and the quality of its learning materials, underpinned by personal support for students. Applying rigorous standards, the Open University innovated in its teaching methods and was helped immensely by its association with the BBC. It became, and remains, a world leader.
The OU was very much the university of the second chance—except that for many students it was their first chance. It has thrived on open access and the desire for self-improvement. All of those principles remain vital for an inclusive and skilled society. As we have heard, however, numbers of part-time students have fallen heavily in recent years, right across the sector. The introduction 10 years ago of the rules that cut funding for students taking qualifications at the same level as, or a lower level than, the ones they already held was a serious financial disincentive for those seeking personal enrichment or professional updating. It was a mistake.
It is not, however, the whole story. As we have heard, it seems that students with families and higher living costs than 18 to 21 year-olds have found the cost of study a major disincentive. This is a huge disbenefit for the individuals concerned and is almost certainly not in the national interest. As we have heard, part-time nursing student numbers have fallen by half. I hope the Government will urgently look at whether it is justifiable for tuition fees for part-time students in England to be two and a half times higher than in the rest of the UK. It does not seem right to me that students in England should be so disadvantaged. Ways must be found to reduce the cost.
I hope the Government will look again at the benefits of lifelong learning for part-time and mature students for our productivity and skills base as we train people for a new generation of jobs. I hope too that the Government will examine the potential for individual lifetime learning accounts, which could prove extremely helpful. Finally, the Government could bear in mind one further fact: around 20 million adults in the UK do not have level 4 qualifications. That is a huge untapped resource.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, on securing this debate and introducing it so well. I am only sorry that it has taken so long to organise. We are also limited to about to about three minutes, which is hardly enough to cover an issue of this importance. That is, however, where we are and where I will begin.
We all agree that we live, as the noble Baroness pointed out, in a world of constant change—technological, social and cultural. Thanks to globalisation the world is increasingly becoming one, as different cultures and societies come together. In this situation it is vital that part-time and continuing education keeps pace with the world around us. If the world constantly changes, education must constantly change and expand. I do not really like the term “part-time education”, because it is lifelong education: the “full-time” and “part-time” distinction does not make much sense. Nevertheless, when one is employed in a full-time job and takes on a course, we call that part-time. That is fine. What it does, however, is increase social mobility and economic productivity, and provide skills that one may lack and—most important of all—job satisfaction. It makes for a contented workforce that can see the world as an expression of its own skill and powers, rather than as an alien entity trying to dominate it.
In that kind of world, part-time education becomes a form of self-expression and self-development. It is, therefore, natural to worry about the decline in the number of part-time students: a fall of 47% between 2008-9 and 2016-17. In England the fall is even greater: 59%. That is very disturbing. How have we come to this and what can we do about it? Three minutes, as I said earlier, is too short a time to explore those questions, so I will just make some quick points. First, it is a great mistake to regard so-called part-timers as being like full-timers. They are not, and that is a serious mistake. Part-time students form a distinct group with their own historical experiences. They are mainly older and mature, with family responsibilities, mortgages, and a reluctance to take out loans: they are notoriously debt-averse. In that situation, if they are offered a grant in the same way it is offered to undergraduates—by saying that payment will be deferred—they are not going to take it. The result is that when these grants are offered, they are certainly not taken up. That is not how mature students respond.
Finally, a word in half a minute about the Open University. Again, it puzzles me why it is called the Open University, which by definition implies that other universities are closed. Happily, we are not. I am a university professor and my university is not closed, as in the Soviet Union or anywhere else; it is open. However, the Open University is open in a special way. It is independent of qualifications that have been obtained at A-level; it is also independent of space, so that it can teach wherever students are. The Open University is one of the great achievements, like the NHS. It has had a great impact on India and other countries. I would even be inclined to say that it is a jewel in the crown. Nothing should therefore be done to damage it. That depends not only on the Government but on the Open University itself. It is important that the Open University should remain innovative and make savings, but at the same time the Government should be more hospitable to the presence and contribution of the Open University.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has vividly and starkly analysed and shown the scale of the problem we are talking about today. I was chair of the council of the Open University for 10 years, between 2004 and 2014, when these changes began to emerge. The reality has come home to roost only in the last couple of years.
The first change was the introduction of student loans. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, clearly said, that was a piece of financial engineering and chicanery by the Treasury, introduced by Gordon Brown and accelerated by George Osborne. It was a completely unnecessary and cynical piece of financial engineering. Secondly, we had the elimination of ELQs, which were not a huge issue in money terms but were huge symbolically. They were part of the values that the Open University stood for; never mind the financial side, they were a cornerstone of it. The third trend which I found strange was, on the one hand, the championing of the devolving of power—I championed it very much—away from Milton Keynes to the Celtic nations while at the same time, rather against my best interests, there was the increasing centralisation of power in England towards Milton Keynes. We have an English problem here because the trend in student numbers, awful as it is in the Celtic nations, is twice as bad in England. There is a lesson there to be learned.
There are two issues for the OU to consider. First, is the model of 50 years ago, modified as it has been as things have gone along, still up to date with today’s student requirements? Secondly, has centralisation in England gone too far? I suggest two possible initiatives for the OU to consider in getting out of this difficulty. One is collaboration with universities across the United Kingdom, locally and regionally, to develop a new form of distance learning. Those local universities have their feet on the ground and collaboration seems an interesting proposition, which would not cost much money. We have to remember that part-time education has virtually disappeared from the curriculum of most universities anyway, so it would revive that. The other is that I chair one of the local enterprise partnerships in the north of England, where the biggest problem we face is the lack of skills and training in non-academic jobs and circumstances. Could not the Open University model be adjusted to address that need in society, which is not academic, using the technology and the distance-learning skills the university has in an innovative way to deal with a local problem?
What should the Government do about all this? First, we welcome the post-18 review and we obviously consider that it must primarily review the impact of student loans on part-time education, because a loan to a 28 year-old is very different from a loan to an 18 year-old. Secondly, they should restore the priority of lifelong learning, which for 20 or 30 years had become a stronger and stronger issue in government. They should change that and put it back as a policy priority. Thirdly, they should consider incentives for employers to use the Open University more than they do. There has been a significant fall in the number of employers sponsoring students going to that university, which is a disgrace and a bad reflection on those businesses, which cannot see beyond the end of their noses. Lastly, the Government should pay far more than lip service to devolution in England and recognise that it makes huge economic and social sense in the way that we deliver economic development, health and education.
My Lords, if the Minister entered the Chamber this morning with any doubts as to the significance of the Open University, those doubts should by now have been well and truly extinguished. I declare my interest as a former chancellor of the Open University, a role in which I served from 2007 to 2014. If I regret any one thing during my term as chancellor, it is my failure to persuade any Minister to attend an OU graduation ceremony. Had it been any other university, this would just have been a pity but, for the reasons touched on by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lane-Fox and Lady Garden, in the case of the OU it is tragic. It is tragic because unless you have experienced one of those celebrations—and celebrations they are—you can never truly understand the impact of the OU on the lives of its graduates.
One of the assets that this House brings to the national debate is informed experience, so allow me to quickly set out the actual experience of being a part-time learner. I had failed badly at school and belatedly realised that I needed some sort of education if I was to make anything of my life. In that pre-OU era, I enrolled at the City & Guilds. I studied nine subjects at what was then called night school. I was up before 7 am to get a bus and a train to where I worked as a messenger in an advertising agency. Three evenings a week, I would cross London to study from 6 pm until 9 pm. I then got the Tube and a bus home, reaching there just before 10 pm. I did that for four years, during which time I got married and our first child was born. I am in no way regretful but that allows me to know that unless you have lived with the challenge of doubling up on childcare and doing your homework on a train while juggling with every other facet of adult life, you are very unlikely to have the imagination to understand—let alone appropriately legislate—for non-traditional forms of education. Those forms of education are imposed by circumstance rather than privilege, be that privilege intellectual or financial.
I sincerely hope that the Minister, when he replies, will prove me wrong but I get no sense that the Government have demonstrated a full understanding of the role that the OU could play in a post-Brexit, productivity-challenged Britain. Surely, one of the few issues on which remainers and Brexiteers ought to agree is the overwhelming importance of developing a workforce in which every person, no matter what their age or background, can develop an active and constructive role. In my opinion, this is a task that the Open University is better equipped than any other institution in the country to fulfil.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Bakewell on achieving this debate and regret that we have only three minutes. I should draw attention to my university declaration in the register but the reason that I wanted to speak in this debate is that many years ago, I taught with the Open University. One of the common themes that we have seen in this debate, whether we are talking about people who have been students, the families of those who have been students, people who have been tutors or those who have served in governance at the Open University, is the enormously high respect that every single person who comes into contact with the university has for it. I was going to make the point that my noble friend Lord Puttnam has just made: if anybody has not been to an Open University graduation ceremony, they really should go. But they should also take a box of handkerchiefs because it is an incredibly moving experience.
In my days in the Open University, many years ago, I was always impressed by the quality of the course material. It was interesting to see how much of it was then used by other conventional universities. More than that, I was particularly impressed by the students and their motivation. My noble friend Lord Puttnam has just outlined what he went through. It proves that the motivation of students who come to the Open University or to Birkbeck must be very high. Many of us were the first in our families to go to university but, for the most part, those who are the first to go to university have full-time jobs, families and mortgages. If anybody thinks that the funding arrangements do not matter, they should look at what has happened with bursaries for nurses. Nursing places are still being filled by very good candidates, but they are not being filled by mature students, as they were a few years ago, because those people do not want to inflict an extra burden on their family, especially when they are taking time away from them.
The OU briefing that we have all been sent sets out several points it would like to be pursued. I shall concentrate on and explore one factor that has not been mentioned too much today. It is the need for this sector of education to be very flexible and to provide progressive pathways. It is desperately important that people can move from one sector of education and one type of qualification approach, and we need credit accumulation and credit transfer to become an integral part of all we offer to part-time and mature students. I do not think we are talking about the US model of a credit for basketball, although what my noble friend Lord Hunt said was interesting, but the Open University’s foundation courses—the building blocks and segment approach—is vital if we are to be able to provide people with the multiple skills that they will need in the future. The report on AI has been mentioned, as has the fact that people no longer have jobs for life. We have enough experience to design this for the future. I am glad that we have this debate today. We are celebrating the National Health Service, but the Open University is the other great achievement, of Harold Wilson and the Labour Government.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, referred to the report of the Economic Affairs Committee. He chaired the work, he is an extremely skilful and wholly impartial chairman and we never discuss Brexit. I am a member of his committee and I want to draw attention to one terrifying statistic that we came across in writing the report. The number of part-time students aged over 30 fell by 41% in the four years to last year. The trend had been going on for 10 years, but it accelerated. That is a terrifying number when we think of the needs of the economy, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, did. It is a story not just of personal opportunities forgone but of national self-harm. I think we have a crisis on our hands.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, for this debate, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, on her maiden speech and I wish the Open University happy birthday. I congratulate all the other colleges, whether higher or FE, that do a tremendous job in continuing education. I taught all my life in deprived communities on Merseyside. One of the things I vividly now remember is the number of parents who ventured into school to help out. They were often single mums whose children were no longer in the home so they could come into school to help out. They suddenly got a taste for learning and thought to themselves, “I can do that”. Sometimes it was retired dads as well. Guess what? They went on to do courses and degrees because they had the confidence from being in school and seeing they could do that and had the provision available.
The traditional pattern for the most able, often well-off, students is well-known: primary education, secondary education and then on to further education or university. Indeed, I assume that many, if not all, of my noble colleagues followed that path, en route to a distinguished career in their chosen field and then into this Chamber. However, although this is a path trodden by many more students than was the case 49 years ago—I will explain the significance of this later—the majority of young people do not follow this route, and it should not be the only route to acquiring knowledge and skills.
Further and continuing education offers a door into personal development and skills that is never closed, whatever your age or circumstances—although the Government seem determined not to shut the door, but to make it more difficult to squeeze through. In addition to offering a chance to those who did not, at 18, move on to higher education, the further and continuing route is now even more necessary. The changing pattern of employment and the new skills demanded by the speed of developments in industry mean that updating skills and learning new ones is vital to our economy.
I had the pleasure of meeting Harold Wilson when he was president of the North of England Education Conference. I had to collect him and take him to his room at the Adelphi Hotel—remember “Just cook, will yer?” He met Sir Keith Joseph, who was then the Secretary of State for Education. I was 26 or 27 and the chair of education. I was amazed how well those two individuals got on. I was a bit overpowered by them, but Harold Wilson started to talk to Sir Keith about his greatest achievements in government. This is true: he said to Sir Keith Joseph that one of his greatest achievements in government was establishing—yes, you guessed it—the Open University. I always remember that, and it was important to me.
The most important word in the title of the Open University is not, in my view “university”, but “open”. When the Open University admitted its first students in 1971, only a tiny fraction of 18 year-olds went on to study for a first degree. The barrier then was not the thought of a debt of tens of thousands of pounds. In the 1970s, tuition was completely free and the means-tested maintenance grant of £10 a week during term-time meant that the poorest student could pay for accommodation, food and clothes and still have enough for an occasional pint or Babycham. The barrier then was aspiration. For many young people whose parents had left school at 14, even those who had passed the 11-plus, university was not an option and even staying on until 16 to take GCEs was not automatic. I remember one student who on his 15th birthday, the school leaving age then, had among his birthday cards a letter giving the time and date of the dockyard apprentice exam. A friend of mine was allowed to stay on to take A-levels against his parents’ wishes—they wanted him to get to work—only after his English teacher went to plead with them and tell them how important doing an A-level at school was. His parents wanted him to bring home a wage.
Noble Lords may wonder what any of this has to do with the Open University. Well, when it was established it offered, for the first time, a university education to those who would never have dreamt of the traditional university route. Since 1971, more than 2 million students have studied its courses, many of whom have used their higher education to contribute to an economy which is always in need of a well-educated and highly skilled workforce, but never more so than in the 21st century.
We have heard many statistics about the Open University, the most alarming of which is the 63% drop in undergraduate entrants between 2010 and 2015, which was even worse than the 51% nationally. It is the number of disadvantaged students that has fallen the greatest, which is another blow against the Government’s fine words about social mobility. The Centre for Cities says that rather than replacing low-skilled jobs with more of the same or welfare, we need greater investment in lifelong learning and technical education to help adults adapt to changing labour markets and better retraining for people who lose their job because of those changes. It is worth noting that there are 20 million adults who do not even have a level 3 qualification. Imagine if they had the opportunity to do that. Imagine how it would change their lives and how it would help our economy as well.
Time, tide and the changing labour market wait for no man. It is not a matter of the Minister being carried to the beach and commanding the waves to stop. Whether or not we are in Europe we are just a small island 40 kilometres off the coast of mainland Europe. We cannot afford to lose our place as a high-tech, well-skilled and competitive economy. I was taken with the important contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. Like other colleagues, I agree with every word he said. We have created a vicious circle. The decline in numbers leads to a decline in courses and a decline in courses leads to a further decline in students, so we need to look at radical solutions.
One solution, which my noble friend Lord Shipley mentioned, may be to support all young people with an endowment or individual learning account, which they can use at any stage—early or later in life—to help to finance further or higher education. I was taken by my noble friend Lady Garden’s description of how she did her degree at the Open University. She used the phrase, “I wafted in”. I cannot imagine my noble friend wafting into anything.
We as a party are not simply waving a shroud on this matter. Vince Cable has made continuing education a priority of his leadership, and has launched an independent commission on lifelong learning to develop new proposals to give everybody the chance of self-improvement and employment at every stage of their life.
I have a few simple questions for the Minister which have been alluded to. When can we expect the review of post-18 education to report back? When will the Government respond to the recommendations? What does the Minister have to say to those students who will not be able to start a continuing education course or a degree next September?
As we have heard, 2019 will be famous for two fifties: one is to do with Article 50; the other is the 50th birthday of the Open University. I hope that the Government will give us and the Open University something to celebrate.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Bakewell is due our gratitude for securing this timely debate on a subject of real importance to the economic future of this country. That fact is not reflected in the mere three minutes allocated to Back-Bench speakers, although I think we all understand the need to accommodate more time for the debate marking the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service. I am wearing the sticker commemorating that today, and have a personal interest as someone born in the first year of the National Health Service.
None the less, it has been an excellent debate. I start by congratulating my noble friend Lady Bryan of Partick on a fine maiden speech. We first met many years ago, and I welcome my noble friend and her brand of socialism to your Lordships’ House. I can tell your Lordships: “You ain’t heard nothing yet”.
My noble friend Lady Bakewell opened the debate most effectively and highlighted the fact that, as the National Health Service celebrates its 70th anniversary, the Open University is preparing to celebrate its 50th. I had not made the link between these two events but, as my noble friend reminded us, that link is, of course, Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee. Surely in terms of the foresight of their socialism and the legacy it has produced, they must qualify as the all-time power couple.
Last year, the OECD highlighted the fact that the United Kingdom is full of highly educated workers with skills that often do not match the jobs available. Its report said that employers often do not train enough of their employees for new skills and that they should work more closely with the education system to ensure that school pupils and college and university students achieve the skills that the economy requires.
Research suggests that there are key process stages which influence school leavers’ decision-making: the UCAS cycle, open days and published information—whether comparison sites or league tables. These are all places where part-time or distance learning options tend not to feature. Prospective part-time students are generally much less well informed. A study commissioned by the Open University earlier this year showed that nearly three-quarters of prospective part-time students in England, all of whom were interested in studying part-time at higher education level in the next five years, were unaware that tuition fee loans were available for part-time study.
We need a single national portal which shows career opportunities with available jobs, apprenticeship options and links to training requirements and where and how study can be pursued. This would need to be strongly supported by face-to-face mentoring and guidance to give people the best knowledge of their options, and should come under the Government’s careers strategy.
That strategy needs to go further and address retraining and upskilling at all levels. The National Careers Service needs to be more ambitious and have a more innovative design, including better search facility and more advice, with direct links to taster courses to help build confidence and inform the decisions of those wanting to learn. Part-time higher education will be a determining factor in confronting skills gap issues, as well as the other major economic challenge that the UK faces: low productivity. However, part-time higher education in England is in crisis, with the continuing fall in the number of part-time and mature students, to which many noble Lords have referred, largely the result of the huge increase in tuition fees since 2012. With Labour’s pledge to end fees, that barrier will no longer face those who want to combine work with adding to their skills.
It must be acknowledged that those challenges cannot be met by relying on young people alone. The skills gaps are too many and too pressing. All adults of working age, whatever their background or level of qualification, need regular opportunities to upskill or reskill throughout what we all know will now be lengthening working lives. That fact was firmly grasped by the Economic Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House, ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I chuckled rather when the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, had been impartial. I guess he would be in that committee, but the noble Lord and I go back some way, and one adjective that he is not usually associated with is impartial. I certainly welcome the fact that the committee produced a report containing much wisdom. I was particularly struck by the chapter on flexible learning, where it recommended the introduction of a credit-based system allowing people to learn in a modular way at a pace that suits them and their circumstances.
The Government have recognised this by launching their review of post-18 education and funding. That is to be welcomed, as is the fact that they will consider how to encourage more flexible learning, including part-time and distance learning. The review represents an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of the system of further and higher education that has developed in England over the past 20 years. For the first time, it is considering adult education and training at the same time as university-level education.
I hope that the Minister can explain how he sees the opportunity to strengthen the pathways between further education, apprenticeships and higher education to ensure there is joined-up thinking to enable young people to see their training as not just for a job but for a career. Flexibility must be placed at the heart of the post-18 education review. The Government have taken steps to provide part-time learning by introducing maintenance loans for part-time students, but they do not apply to those studying via distance learning. When will that gap will be addressed, because it currently acts as a disincentive to mature students returning to education?
As I said, the main priority for the UK must be lifelong learning, with individuals having both the incentive and the opportunity to develop and update flexible skills that are not attached to a particular employer. That philosophy will be central to the national education service which Labour will deliver in government, and will encompass further education colleges. They will continue to have an important role in earning and learning. They are drivers of social mobility, as various noble Lords said, including my noble friends Lady Bakewell and Lady Blackstone. I believe that the role of further education colleges is underplayed. It certainly seems undervalued by the Government in the funding that they get, but they will have a continuing role to play in economic growth. Part-time higher education students at colleges are typically aged over 25, although, worryingly, the Association of Colleges points out that their numbers have declined by more than 10,000 over the past four years.
However, the Open University will remain at the forefront of access for second-chance and, indeed, third-chance learners. A third of its students have only one A-level or a lower qualification when they join. As the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, said, 75% of them are in work. The Open University is responsible for one of the least-known facts, I believe, about first-year undergraduate students in English universities: almost one in five of them study part-time. With increasing degree apprenticeships, FutureLearn and OpenLearn, the OU will, as it approaches its half century, continue to push the boundaries of education technology into its second half.
Yesterday, I attended a reception in Parliament hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering and EngineeringUK. That industry will be central to the ability of this country to build a strong economy when the shockwaves caused by leaving the EU are felt. Some 125,000 engineers and technicians with core engineering skills are required every year and the OU is already playing its part, with more than 40,000 STEM students preparing themselves for those demands.
This has been a debate high on quality in terms of the contributions by noble Lords, many with vast experience of the Open University itself or of part-time learning in other institutions or sectors. Much more could have been said were greater time available but, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said, we shall have the opportunity to revisit some of the issues around lifelong learning when your Lordships’ House debates the excellent report of his committee. I echo the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about the post-18 review and report. My noble friend Lady Bakewell said that she anticipated it appearing by the end of this year; my information was that it will be into next year, so it would be helpful to have clarification from the Minister. I trust that he has absorbed the many important routes signposted by noble Lords on how to promote and expand on part-time and continuing education and I look forward to hearing his response.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to respond to this debate on part-time and continuing education, and I note the specific reference to the future of the Open University. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, very much for raising this subject again. Studying part-time and supporting the education of individuals throughout their lives can bring considerable benefits for individuals, employers and the wider economy.
Let me start by setting the scene. Noble Lords have spoken at length today about the importance of the Open University, and they are right to do so. It has been particularly interesting to hear remarks from those who have been its previous leaders and from its current leaders and alumni, and particularly from those who have taught at it—including, if I picked it up correctly, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. Since 1969, the Open University has brought the opportunity to engage in higher education to people across the country who would not otherwise have had the chance to do so. There has been a theme of social mobility in what has been said today.
I also say at the outset how much I appreciated the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan of Partick. She gave a particularly warm and thoughtful speech and I am certain that her experience as a graduate of the OU has added greatly to the debate today—and that she will continue to do so in the future. We also look forward to no doubt hearing the views of Keir Hardie transmitted from above via the noble Baroness in the future. Given that football is in vogue, in addition to the importance of study, I hope that she is a keen supporter of Partick Thistle.
The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation last month described the Open University as,
“essential to our future higher education landscape”.
I agree with Sam Gyimah on this point. I can also report that the Minister took part in an online meeting with Open University students on Monday, making use of the same videoconferencing technology that they use for their studies, to join in a conversation with students from all parts of the country. I am myself looking forward to joining the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, chancellor of the Open University, and others at a round-table meeting to discuss the work of the OU on
It stands to reason that part-time education offers opportunities to many people who are not catered for by the traditional undergraduate model of university. We know that the part-time student population in higher education is different from that for full-time—the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, cited some demographics. Over half of part-time students are older than 30, while this is the case for only 7% of full-time students. As an observation, part-time students also happen to be nearly 10 percentage points more likely to be female than their full-time equivalents. There are numerous testimonials provided by Open University graduates over the years that speak to this. These include people whose caring responsibilities or disabilities made part-time study the appropriate choice for them. Part-time education, however, also carries benefit that will follow an individual throughout their career. Many of those who choose to study through such routes do so because it can complement their existing job roles. Research has found that there are significant employment advantages for those who complete part-time courses, when they start with only a level 3 qualification or below.
Education is of course considered to be a pleasure and a challenge in itself, stimulating and maintaining what Monsieur Poirot referred to as those “little grey cells”. I hope that this will be the experience of the lady wife of my noble friend Lord Northbrook when she graduates. Part-time and continuing education allows this pleasure to be extended to a broader span of the population. Put simply, it is good for people’s well-being and mental health, where appropriate. Contrary to what the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, said, we do understand this and I hope that he realises that.
The Open University stands out as by far and away the largest provider of part-time higher education in England. In 2016-17, over a quarter of all entrants to part-time undergraduate study started at the OU. I will though also pay tribute to other universities and institutions, such as Birkbeck—where the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, is president, and where the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was previously and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, is now a fellow. I also mention Teesside University. All make important contributions to part-time study in this country. I also point out that—as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, will know—over 93% of part-time undergraduate qualifiers at Birkbeck were in further study or employment six months after graduating. As noble Lords know, outcomes are a very important part of our government policy.
The noble Baroness’s Motion refers to continuing education as well as part-time education. Continuing education of course extends beyond what we may commonly refer to as higher education and I will return to this theme later on.
Let me now address directly the challenge posed by the changes observed in participation in part-time higher education in recent years. There are now record numbers of 18 year-olds going to university to study full-time, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, we know that there has been a marked decline in the number of people studying part-time in higher education in England. This downward trend goes back to 2008. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, eloquently highlighted the statistics, and a number of reasons for this have been given during the debate, which I will not rehearse again. The Government have taken a number of steps to address the decline in part-time study in higher education. First, noble Lords will recall that, during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act, the Government brought forward an amendment that gave prominence to part-time study, distance learning and accelerated degrees. This amendment set out that such types of study are included in the need to promote choice for students, which the Office for Students must have regard for in pursuit of its wider functions. The Government also offer part-time tuition fee loans. I am pleased to note that in 2016-17, 47,000 OU students were able to benefit from a tuition fee loan for undergraduate courses. OU students made up around 64% of all the part-time students supported by English tuition fee loans in that year.
I pause for a moment to note that, just this week, the Government have announced that the maximum tuition fees that a university will be able to charge in the 2019-20 academic year will be frozen for the second year running. My noble friend Lord Forsyth spoke passionately on this particular matter. The Government have removed, as he has said, the “equivalent or lower qualification” restrictions—the so-called ELQ restrictions —for all science, technology, engineering and mathematics part-time degree courses. This means that students who already held a degree on these courses were then able to access support through student loans.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way, and for the initiative that has been taken in respect of that particular group of students. However, if the Government have conceded the principle, why not extend it more broadly? Am I right in saying that the number of students who have benefited from that are a few hundred? After all, in the whole of England this year, the number of students who did A-level engineering was 10.
My noble friend will know that I do not have those statistics to hand but I take note of what he has said. It ties into the report that he has produced, and I hope that at a later point we will have time to debate the details of that report.
I turn to HEFCE—now replaced by the Office for Students—which targeted an element of the teaching grant in recognition of the additional costs of part-time study. Twenty-nine and a half million pounds of the £72 million made available through this allocation was granted to the Open University. Importantly, in addition, this Government have in recent months tabled regulations that will allow part-time students on higher education courses to access maintenance loans similar to those received by their equivalents on full-time courses. These loans will be available to students starting honours and ordinary degrees, and equivalent qualifications, on or after
I mentioned the likelihood of the take-up of these loans being very low because they will simply add to the debt of these debt-averse students. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that. What number does he believe will take it up? I suspect that it will be very small.
We hope to be more positive on that. However, on a specific question like that, I think that it would be wise for me to write to the noble Baroness with details of how we see this going forward.
In their response to the part-time maintenance loan consultation in March 2017, the Government committed to seek to introduce maintenance loans for part-time distance learning courses. This is subject to the development of a robust control regime to manage the particular risks and challenges associated with this mode of study.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked a question about credit transfer. He may know that Section 38 of the Higher Education and Research Act provides the OfS with the duty to monitor and report on the availability and take-up of student transfer arrangements, together with the power to encourage or promote awareness of such arrangements.
I turn now to the post-18 review. Your Lordships will know that the Government are undertaking a major review of post-18 education and funding to ensure that we have a joined-up education system that is accessible to all and encourages the development of the skills that we need as a country. It is looking at how to ensure that funding arrangements across post-18 education and training are transparent and do not act as a barrier to choice or provision. The noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Blackstone, asked a number of questions about this review. It will look at how we can ensure that the system is supported by a proper funding system that provides value for money and works for students and taxpayers alike. It will also ensure that the system gives everyone a genuine choice between high-quality technical, vocational and academic routes.
The review is being informed by independent advice from an expert panel chaired by Philip Augar. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, is a member of the independent panel, sitting alongside representatives from further education, higher education and industry. My understanding is that the panel will publish its report at an interim stage at some point this year, before the Government conclude the overall review in early 2019. That is as far as I can go in answering the question raised by, in particular, the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Watson.
Of particular relevance to this debate, the review’s terms of reference state that it will address:
“How we can encourage learning that is more flexible (for example, part-time, distance learning and commuter study options) and complements ongoing Government work to support people to study at different times in their lives”.
To reassure my noble friend Lord Holmes, the word “flexible” is very much in there.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, shared with us a glimpse of the findings of the important work that the Economic Affairs Committee has done. We agree with the committee that for too long young people have not had a genuine choice post-16 about where they study and what they study. For exactly that reason, we have overhauled apprenticeships to focus on quality and are fundamentally transforming technical education. As I said earlier, there will no doubt be an occasion when we can more fully debate the committee’s findings in this area.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, raised her concern about turning universities into businesses. Students and taxpayers all contribute to our higher education system and rightly expect value for money. Our reforms are continuing to open up access to higher education, enabling students to make more informed choices. However, I say to the noble Baroness that there is a balance to be struck, because part of that value is having the student experience at university—that is equally important—and I think that she has probably heard me say that before.
The noble Lords, Lord Rogan and Lord Griffiths, asked about funding arrangements in Wales and Northern Ireland. The review is looking widely at the evidence and ideas available, including those from other countries such as the devolved Administrations. The Government noticed with interest the recent changes in Wales.
I said earlier that continuing education, of course, extends beyond what we might commonly refer to as higher education. In order to respond to changes in the labour market, including from the impact of automation, which includes artificial intelligence, it is becoming increasingly important that people both upskill and reskill throughout their career. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and others rightly pointed out the changes that we must acknowledge and address to help the next generation and those beyond. The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, spoke about changes that have come about with the digital revolution. Through innovative industrial, skills and digital strategies, government departments are working together to ensure that the population is prepared to seize the opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution might bring.
Following a manifesto commitment, the Government announced at the Autumn Budget 2017 that the national retraining scheme would be set up by the end of the Parliament. This is an ambitious, far-reaching programme to drive adult learning and retraining. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, and the noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Watson, asked whether there is a cohesive plan or strategy. They also asked for an update on career learning. In response, I can say that the strategic direction of the national retraining scheme is being set by the National Retaining Partnership, which is a coming together of employers, workers and government. The national retraining scheme will include a series of phased interventions and pilots, starting this year. As part of these, the flexible learning fund pilot, launched in October last year, is designed to address barriers relating to the “delivery side” of learning. It aims to do this by supporting providers to develop and test ways of delivering accessible learning for adults with low or intermediate-level technical skills or those who simply lack basic skills.
The Open University, in partnership with the Bedford College Group, Middlesbrough College and West Herts College, was successful in its £1million bid to develop its “bringing learning to life” proposal. Targeted at adults in paid work, or those looking to return to the labour market following an absence, it proposes to expand its existing online platform, OpenLearn, to include functional skills English and maths provision.
I was going to go on to talk about apprenticeships but that subject did not crop up in the debate as much as I thought it might, so I will move on swiftly to some concluding comments. I should like to focus on an important subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam—productivity. The positive effects of part-time and continuing education should not be considered through the prism of individual benefit alone. We should also bear in mind the impact that they have on our nation’s productivity and broader economy.
Education and training make people more productive and they contribute more to our economy as a result, which I think was the gist of the noble Lord’s argument. Some estimates value universities’ contribution to human capital in one year alone to be as high as £63 billion. This Government therefore, rightly, value the world-class higher education system that exists in England, and they are taking steps to transform the other post-18 education options that are available. At this point, perhaps I will sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who said that we are “in the first act”. I do not know how many acts he has in mind as part of his play but, to reassure him and the House today, I can say that there is an awful lot of work to do.
As the largest provider of part-time higher education in this country, the OU plays an important role in this system as it approaches its 50th year. I have two or three more questions to answer but I fear that we are running out of time. I will therefore write to the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Blackstone and Lady Garden, on a number of questions that they raised. However, I hope that today noble Lords have been left in no doubt that we hold the OU in high esteem and will continue to support and applaud its successes.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to this debate, which has been extremely vigorous and well informed. First, I have to honour my colleague, my noble friend Lady Bryan, who demonstrated in her maiden speech that her values and her heart are in the right place. I look forward to her expressing those values in future.
A lot of people in this room know a lot of things about further education. We are a room full of experts and we should not be ashamed of that: we know what we are about. We have high hopes that the Government, in their post-18 review, will tackle what many of us perceive as a major contributor to this country’s economy. I feel that there is passion and information, and plenty of suggestions to be read in Hansard and noted. I commend the report and look forward to its application.