Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners

Butcher, John (2020). Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners. Higher Education Policy Institute, Oxford.

URL: ttps://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/U...



This paper aims to promote a re-think about the decline in part-time higher education in England. Most part-time learners are mature students, and the oft-reported drop in part-time student numbers can be viewed as a proxy for the retreat of older learners from higher education. A succession of reports has been published identifying the dramatic loss of part-time numbers. Despite the persuasiveness of the quantitative data cited, policymakers have yet to reverse the decline. The issue of disappearing part-time adult learners in higher education is important for individuals and institutions. Individuals miss out on developing their full potential, and their talents are wasted. Universities miss out by a loss of diversity in the student body, and through the contribution adult learners make to widening participation. Adults who study part-time are disproportionately likely to have characteristics associated with non-traditional and disadvantaged learners. If part-time learners are included, government claims about closing gaps in participation are untrue. The loss in part-time numbers equates to 17 per cent fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education. This paper uses little seen qualitative information from parttime adult learners interviewed for four research projects. The authentic voices identify policy solutions to the seemingly intractable problem of part-time decline. The report by the Independent Panel to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, known as the Augar review, argues for flexible learning, bridging courses and greater financial support for lifelong learning. Politicians of all major parties recognise the importance of the need to support access to part-time learning. At the 2019 General Election, the Labour Party pledged to offer every adult the right to six years of free study, the Liberal Democrats proposed a ‘Skills Wallet’ of £10,000 to spend on education and training over a period of 30 years and the Conservatives pledged a ‘new National Skills Fund’ of £600million annually, with an ambition to establish a ‘Right to Retrain’. So all the major political parties recognised a need to stimulate more flexible approaches to lifelong learning, and through that to inspire new developments in part-time higher education. In this spirit, this paper responds with a series of recommendations for universities and policymakers to arrest the part-time decline.

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