The UK Government has made raising the UK’s growth rate the Government’s central economic mission and has emphasised the importance of boosting productivity to achieving that mission. Improving the skills of Britain’s workforce will be critical.
Upskilling and Reskilling
Achieving this in England will rely on successful implementation of the reforms to the skills system, including the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, outlined in the Skills for Jobs white paper last year. It will also rely on enabling and encouraging more adults to access higher-level courses to improve their skills and productivity.
Part-time study is crucial because it allows people to combine their learning with paid work and caring responsibilities. On average, 70% of Open University (OU) students are in employment, many of whom are working full-time.
Impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis
Current pressures on the cost of living threaten these ambitions. We know that falling real wages tend to reduce the demand for part-time higher education and there are already worrying signs that adults are being discouraged from accessing higher education. For example, UCAS data shows that full-time applications from mature students have fallen by 13% this year, and there are indications that part-time applications are also being affected.
All students are struggling with the cost of living, but pressures will be particularly felt by part-time students. They tend to be older – seven out of ten (70%) are aged 25 and over – and as a result are more likely to have significant financial and caring responsibilities. At the OU, 39% of students have dependent children.
Part-time students in England are also unlikely to be eligible for government support with their living costs – the vast majority (90%) are excluded from maintenance support, and part-time students are also unable to access support offered to students who are parents via the Parents’ Learning Allowance and the Childcare Grant.
The squeeze on part-time student finances will increase the risk of non-continuation across the sector. A survey of OU students in May revealed that a significant number were already looking to increase their hours of work (22%) or take on a second job (16%) to cope with rising costs of living which, by constraining the time available for their studies, risks reducing their chances of successfully completing them. The same survey also highlighted that many OU students were considering reducing discretionary spending by cancelling subscription services (43%) and reducing spending on social activities (41%) which suggests that study-related costs may come under pressure too (OU Survey of Current Students. Current Students Brand Tracker, May 2022, The Nursery Research and Planning).
Financial burdens are also likely to have an adverse impact on student wellbeing and mental health, again feeding through to a heightened risk of non-continuation.
Supporting Part-Time Learners
So, what can be done? Previous experience demonstrates that providing financial support to part-time students has a big impact in unlocking access to higher education and in enabling students to successfully complete their studies.
We have seen this in Wales, where the number of people taking up study at the OU in Wales has more than doubled since the introduction of maintenance support for part-time students in 2018/19. This has particularly helped people from Wales’s most disadvantaged communities.
We have also seen this with the OU’s Covid support schemes, introduced during the pandemic and using student hardship funding from the UK Government, which had a significant positive impact on student success by enabling students under financial pressure to continue with and complete their courses.
While these policy interventions pre-date the current cost-of-living crisis, they provide powerful evidence that supporting part-time students with their living costs can overcome the financial barriers to study.
This leads to three recommendations for how the UK Government can mitigate the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on adult skills to help achieve its ambitions around productivity and economic growth. These will cost money, but the investment is essential if we are to develop the workforce effectively and grow the economy. The returns in terms of health and wellbeing alone must be worth that commitment.
The Department for Education should extend maintenance loans to all part-time undergraduate students including distance learners.
The Department for Education should extend the Parents Learning Allowance and Childcare Grant to part-time undergraduate students.
The Department for Education should introduce maintenance bursaries for undergraduate students who are in most need for all students irrespective of their mode of study.
By Liz Marr, Pro-Vice Chancellor – Students, The Open University
This article is part of Campaign for Learning’s series: Learning in the cold: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Post-16 Education and Skills
Order of series
Friday 21st October
- Louise Murphy, Economist, Resolution Foundation: The Cost-of-Living and the Energy Crisis for Households
- James Kewin, Deputy Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and 16-19 Year-Olds in Full-Time Further Education
Saturday 22nd October
- Becci Newton, Public Policy Research Director, Institute for Employment Studies: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and 16-18 Year-Olds in Jobs with Apprenticeships
- Zach Wilson, Senior Analysis Officer and Andrea Barry, Analysis Manager, Youth Futures Foundation: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and 16-24 Year-Olds ‘Not in Full-Time Education’
Monday 24th October
- Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Full-Time and Postgraduate Higher Education
- Liz Marr, Pro-Vice Chancellor – Students, The Open University: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Part-Time Higher Education in England
Tuesday 25th October
- Steve Hewitt, Further Education Consultant: The Cost-of-Living Crisis: Access to HE and Foundation Year Programmes
- Sophia Warren, Senior Policy Analyst, Policy in Practice: The Cost-of-Living Crisis, Universal Credit, Jobs and Skills Training
Wednesday 26th October
- Paul Bivand, Independent Labour Market Analyst: Economic Inactivity by the Over 50s, the Cost-of-Living Crisis and Adult Training
- Aidan Relf, Skills Consultant: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Employer Demand for Level 2-7 Apprenticeships
Thursday 27th October
- Mandy Crawford-Lee, Chief Executive, UVAC: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Employer Demand for Level 4+ Apprenticeships and Part-Time Technical Education
- Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive, WEA: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Adult Community Learning
Friday 28th October
- David Hughes, Chief Executive, AoC: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and FE Colleges
- Jane Hickie, Chief Executive, AELP: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Independent Training Providers
Saturday 29th October
- Susan Pember, Policy Director, HOLEX: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Adult Education Providers
- Martin Jones, Vice-Chancellor and David Etherington, Professor of Local and Regional Economic Development, Staffordshire University: The Cost-of-Living Crisis – The Response of Staffordshire University
- Chris Hale, Policy Director, Universities UK: The Cost-of-Living Crisis and Universities