Let’s have a collective post-18 system for HE and FE

21 Oct 2021, 10:37

The lifelong loan entitlement will fail if policy doesn’t remove other barriers for students, writes Tim Blackman

Colleges Week marks the critical role colleges play in education and training, bridging skills gaps and equipping students of all ages to thrive in the workforce. 

The Open University (OU) has a long history of links with the further education sector, working closely with individual colleges and the Association of Colleges to widen access to opportunity.  

At the Conservative Party Conference recently there was a strong political and policy focus on skills, lifelong learning and broadening educational pathways. 

This makes it an exciting as well as potentially challenging time for post-18 education.  

But it is essential that we think about a collective post-18 system. 

We must use this opportunity to be bold and ambitious, so that our frameworks enable flexible study without the often false distinctions between ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ paths.  

The much-heralded lifelong loan entitlement in England is a key milestone on that journey but it will fail if it does not embrace incentives that overcome the many financial and practical barriers that adult learners face.   

Critical to the lifelong loan entitlement is that everyone has access to the same funding entitlement regardless of how they choose to study. 

That could be part-time, full-time or through modular study, face-to-face or distance learning, and higher technical qualification or traditional higher education qualifications.  

Another area of uncertainty is around the fee caps and it is not yet clear how these will be set for modular study. Currently, there are two fee caps – one which applies to students registered on full-time courses and one which applies to students registered on part-time courses.

Under current legislation, there is no link between a part-time student’s study intensity and the fee cap which applies to them – it is set at 75 per cent of the full-time fee cap, no matter what. 

This is a blocker to flexibility – many OU students want to be able to flex their study intensity over their qualification so they can fit their studies around their working and family lives.

We are calling for a single credit-based tuition fee cap linked to study intensity – where the fee cap applicable to a student would be determined based on how many credits they were actually studying rather than their mode of study.

Maintenance support should be extended to cover modular study

Maintenance support should also be extended to cover modular study, higher technical qualifications and distance learning rather than just full-time students and part-time degree students as it is at present.

At the Open University, we are well placed to work together with colleges, to help learners, businesses and public services succeed in what will be very challenging times.   

We currently partner with 30 colleges across the four nations, validating their higher education programmes, sharing course content and expertise, and helping to expand their apprenticeships offer.  

In England, we have worked with Milton Keynes College and the South Central Institute of Technology to offer new progression routes to engineering and computing degrees.  

Learners will study at the college for two years, qualifying for a Higher National Diploma, and then progress to a third year at the OU to achieve a BA in engineering or computing honours.   

This is made possible through a precedent award, which allows students to bypass the review that standard applicants undergo, expediting their application for the undergraduate degree.  

Excitingly, our first students on this programme began their studies with us this month. 

Such progression agreements are likely to become more common, helping those that want to qualify as quickly as possible to enter the workplace and earn.

The HND programmes at MKC cost £3,625 per annum – with the OU topping up £6,336 – making them affordable and an attractive option for many. 

In Scotland, we’ve been working with 15 regional colleges to support transition between college and university.

These partnerships promote progression routes and credit transfer opportunities for students who wish to go on to degree study with the OU, again at lower cost while studying at the right pace for them. 

The Open University in Wales has partnered with Cardiff and the Vale College to support 68 of its students to progress into higher education with monthly support interventions to help remove real and perceived barriers.  

This is a model which can be adapted to work with other college partners. 

Finally, in Northern Ireland the OU has been working with Belfast Metropolitan College to address the shortage of cyber security skills through a higher-level apprenticeship, leading to a foundation degree in cyber security.  

This also allows students to progress to the final stage of the OU computing and IT degree. 

We have a long history of being innovative and responsive to the needs of our learners, industry and public services.

Our partnership with the further education sector, as evidenced through some of these examples, demonstrates what is possible in challenging times.

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