Growing your own graduates: opportunities and challenges for flexible higher education in the new funding environment

Marr, Elizabeth and Streater, Kevin (2012). Growing your own graduates: opportunities and challenges for flexible higher education in the new funding environment. In: Higher education for the social good? The place of lifelong learning, UALL Annual Conference, 18-20 Mar 2012, Cambridge.



At a time when the price of an undergraduate degree in England is set to become the highest in OECD countries, many concerns have been expressed about the affordability of a university qualification, especially for those students currently already under-represented in HE. Much has been made of the availability of tuition fee loans which, for the first time, will be extended to those studying part time at a minimum intensity of 25%. This is potentially good news for part time providers who have had to raise fee levels to cover the reduction in direct teaching grant but as yet, there is considerable uncertainty over part time students’ willingness to become indebted, however generous the terms of the loan. Furthermore, the restriction of loans to those who register for a qualification and the lack of loan availability for those with equivalent or higher level qualifications means that modular study for the purposes of lifelong learning becomes much less feasible
However, evidence at the Open University of an unexpected increase in students aged 18-25 suggests that younger people are giving serious consideration to ‘learning while they are earning’ and setting themselves on a path towards genuine lifelong learning. In response to this – and to employer demands for much more flexible routes to qualifications - the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum and the Business Development Unit have been exploring options to enable the delivery of such schemes at scale. This paper reflects on progress to date and the advantages such schemes offer for employers, students, HEIs and funding bodies. Nevertheless, there are also significant challenges in developing such provision, not least in the rigidified structures of university systems which are predicated on what might be considered an outdated conception of HE and funding mechanisms which effectively restrict access to first-time, undergraduate students following traditional routes through HE.

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