For those of you who can still bear to read the news in these troubling times, you may have seen yesterday that the Department for Education released a series of reports and policy decisions. The publications included an interim response to the Augar Review (Post-18 Review of Education and Funding), which feels like it was published a lifetime ago, and a ‘Skills for Jobs White Paper’.
Here are 3 key points from across the publications that I think OU students need to know:
1. Minimum Entry Standards: What will this mean for the OU?
As we all know, the OU’s mission is to provide high-quality university education to everyone who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential. Currently, most of the OU’s undergraduate courses have no entry requirements, and this is one of the many reasons why we love the OU. For so many people, the OU has provided an opportunity to access higher education that just wasn’t possible earlier in life. I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of personal stories from students who started their journeys with no formal qualifications and as a result of their time with the OU, have transformed their careers and lives for the better.
Therefore, the mention of national minimum entry standards for higher education by the Government yesterday, albeit without any further details provided at this stage, is a concern. I hope that as details of the policy are made public, the OU’s unique position and value are recognised.
2. Lifelong Learning Entitlement: Who will be covered?
This announcement indicates that from 2025 onwards there will be a move towards focusing on modules, rather than whole qualifications i.e. a degree. This is a way for the Government to promote vocational training rather than degrees and make funding more flexible, however, OU students will already be familiar with this approach to studying. The principle is that people will have a tuition fee loan allowance equivalent to four years of post-18 education that follows them through their life, meaning that they could choose to study a module at university when they are 18 and then another module ten years later in order to upskill or change their careers. In theory, it should encourage more people into part-time education.
Currently, this policy has not been fleshed out, and so it is unclear who it will be available to. And although this is promoted by the Government as a way to help people retrain for new careers, if it is not available to those who already have a higher education qualification, then a significant proportion of people whose careers have been impacted by the pandemic will not be able to benefit from it and it could negatively impact the Government’s stated aim to ‘build back better’.
3. Student Finance Reform: An opportunity for part-time/distance learning maintenance loans?
Student Finance will require major reform to accommodate the changes proposed under the lifelong learning entitlement mentioned above, and hopefully this will provide an opportunity for maintenance loan provision for part-time learners to be reviewed as well. Certainly, if the plans for a Lifetime Skills Guarantee (not to be confused with the lifelong learning entitlement) is to be successful in encouraging people to access education later in life to retrain or upskill, then ensuring that it is financially viable will be a fundamental element of that success.
In December, I raised a question regarding maintenance loans for part-time distance-learning students with the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students. She responded by confirming that the Government would be reviewing maintenance loans for this group, which is promising, but guarantees nothing. We need to keep making the case for why this matters.
The Government will be consulting with stakeholders on the questions above, and the Students Associationwill be submitting a response to try to ensure that those without formal qualifications are not locked out of higher education. As always, promoting a fairer approach to student finance that recognises part-time distance-learning students’ challenges and needs will be our priority. Maintenance loans will be a key focus for us with the Government’s comprehensive spending review expected later in the year.