Too big a cause to be marginalised

Writing in today’s Observer, Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford says thatGrowing student debt is entrenching unfairness for a whole generation“.

The article comes in the week that A-Level results will be published in England and reports that a third of English 18-year-olds now apply to university. Hutton observes that 12,000 more students from poorer homes are enrolling at university than five years ago but that this hardly compensates for the collapse in part-time student numbers, which fell by 152,000 over the same period. What does this mean for adult learners and their chances of combining study with their other commitments as a manageable way of taking part in higher education?

The article raises important issues and adds weight to the arguments at the heart of the Part-Time Matters campaign, which was launched two years ago. There is an even wider context.

Hutton highlights issues affecting older students in his observation that:

Part-time foundation degrees, certificates and diplomas of higher education are people’s second chance, especially for the over-25s, who represent four-fifths of the drop. The number of mature students doing full-time degrees is also falling. Together this represents one of the biggest setbacks to social mobility in modern times.

While he considers part-time adult learners in higher education, Hutton focuses his consideration of A Level students on the main cohort of 18-year-olds. Some older adults also study for A Levels and their part-time learning options are being restricted in the coming year as government reforms to A levels are implemented. Significant changes in the 2-part qualification have led to colleges advising that it will not be possible to take AS and A2 examinations in the 2015–16 academic year as the first new style A2 examinations will not happen until June 2017.

We should also be concerned about the two-thirds of 18-year-olds who are not applying for university. Savage cuts in FE and adult learning budgets are limiting their options, especially as they grow older, cutting off many people’s routes into post-school education.

Hutton concludes that,

“This is too big a cause to be marginalised as that of the “left”. It is everyone’s – and time mainstream politicians spoke up.”

Lifelong learning should not be an issue of “left”, “right” or “centre”. There are politicians across the spectrum who support adult education, whether in further, higher or community settings. We need them and others with influence to speak up now – loudly and urgently.