It was an unexpected, but welcome, surprise when I read the following passage from the UK Government’s press release in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech on adult learning this morning:
“Higher education loans will also be made more flexible, in a move the government says will allow people to space out their study by splitting it into segments, transfer credits between colleges and universities, and enable more part-time learning.”
It’s best not to get carried away by platitudes and rhetoric in politics, as so much can change between stating intentions and introducing policy. However, the mere mention of ‘part-time learning’ in the same sentence as ‘higher education loans’ represents a potential opportunity that is too important to ignore.
The COVID19 crisis has forced the Government to recognise that education and retraining will be vital to our economic recovery. The level of uncertainty around if and when a vaccine will be available, and how long any immunity will last, means that certain industries and sectors cannot be sure of any return to pre-pandemic normalities or certainties around jobs and careers for individuals working in those sectors. Therefore, enabling access to adult education will be fundamental in helping those who have lost jobs throughout the pandemic to pick up their lives and point them in a different direction.
The OU Students Association has been banging the drum for governments to provide maintenance loans to part-time learners for as long as I can remember. The combination of increased tuition fees in 2012 and the lack of provision of part-time maintenance loans led to a huge decrease in student numbers at the OU, with the prospect of part-time study not viable for many. This seems particularly unfair, especially when you consider that it is often those who could benefit most that are least likely to be able to pay fees and cover other living costs. The necessity of needing to work to make a living though, also means that those who are not able to justify part-time learning, cannot commit to full-time student at a traditional brick university, leaving them locked out of higher education altogether.
It seems though, now that more and more people are falling into this ‘locked out’ category due to COVID19, that the Government are recognising this issue. Therefore, our priority will be to ensure that any new higher education funding deal includes OU students, and that we are not left out, as we have been in the past, due to any perceived non-traditional course delivery.
It’s 2020, and distance-learning through a range of content delivery methods is increasingly common. It takes time, commitment, and considerable resource for part-time students to achieve their qualifications. For most of our students, it is not just ‘a hobby’, but something that improves their lives, career chances, and long-term wellbeing. It is ‘levelling up’ in practice: something the Prime Minister committed to back in December 2019. Furthermore, it is impossible to separate the experiences of students at brick universities, many of whom are now attending de-facto distance-learning institutions due to a second lockdown, from OU students who study at a full-time intensity but still cannot access maintenance loans, just because they are OU students.
These are all, hopefully, strong arguments for ensuring that OU students (and potential OU students) can benefit from maintenance loans that provide opportunities to upskill while working and fulfilling family commitments. As OU Students Association President, I will be making the case at every opportunity, and ensuring the OU student perspective is considered in any policy consultation, conversation or debate.
It’s early days, and time will tell. But rest assured that your Students Association will be doing its utmost to ensure your voice is heard.
OU Students Association President
29 September 2020