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The part-time undergraduate puzzle

This blog was written for HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute following the publication of UK university part-time higher education: a corpus-assisted discourse analysis of undergraduate prospectuses

Popular culture has painted and represented the part-time university graduate as successful in various fields. The institutions offering these opportunities have all been heralded as success stories and sites of opportunity and development for those who, for whatever reason were not able to, or chose not to study a three-year degree in their late teens. Policy over the last 50 years from varying political perspectives has championed part-time education and lifelong learning alongside promoting the uptake and use of new and emerging technologies to facilitate these opportunities. In 2020, individuals are not short of learning opportunities but the puzzle of the decline of part-time higher education feels no closer to being solved.

The puzzle of the demise of the part-time university student is a complicated one which researchers, universities and Government are still grappling with. Reasons cited have been increases in tuition fees, lack of financial support, the equivalent or lower qualification policy (in 2007 state funding was withdrawn for those wishing to study for a qualification of equivalent or level level) and lack of employer support. The 2015 HEPI report It’s the finance, stupid! called for improved financial support, better course design, increased employer engagement and improved information to help to revive part-time numbers. The 2020 follow up, Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners looks at a loss of diversity in the student body and students perspectives on transformative learning possibilities for adults who missed out at 18.

My recent research with Dr Ben Kotzee looks at the discourse around part-time undergraduate education and how UK universities themselves promote part-time study. We conclude that part-time is seen as something different from full-time which needs special attention for a different kind of student and part-time options are very rarely promoted – and sometimes discouraged! This contrasts with specialist distance and evening universities and a group of global online platforms offering short free courses (often by universities) through to fully online degrees who promote and market themselves as sites of opportunity for career and personal development.

I myself studied part-time with the Open University. My studies informed my work and my work informed my studies. A kind of a DIY degree apprenticeship. I wrote about this when I graduated in 2016. I am now a part-time PhD student at the University of Birmingham and my own experiences have driven me towards asking questions of the contemporary university and some of the discourses around issues such as part-time, technology, research and teaching and the future of the university as we know it. The part-time university student hasn’t been invisible in popular culture over the past 40 years and the Open University is widely cited and celebrated as a huge success story.

The 1983 hit movie, Educating Rita, encapsulated the romantic vision of self-improvement and development. Julie Walters played a 26-year-old working class hairdresser from Liverpool embarking on an English Literature degree with the Open University, opening up opportunities socially, academically and professionally. The 1983 trailer for the film feels nostalgic and romantic in the current era of league tables and employability. Part-time academic study and its benefits can also be found in the unlikely environment of a Premier League football manager’s dug out. Graham Potter, the now Brighton and Hove Albion Manager studied with the Open University for a social sciences degree and then a masters in leadership and emotional intelligence at Leeds Metropolitan University, transforming him into a ‘scholarly manager’. The Open University, in the UK, has been at the heart of a vision of flexible education for all, celebrating 50 years in 2019. Birkbeck in London has also specialised in evening study for those working in the capital with support from current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is hard to find a bad news story about the part-time student in popular culture, and UK Government policy is a similar story.

The 1963 Robbins Report outlined the expansion of UK Higher Education and is characterised by soon to be Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech. The famous speech described how new technologies such as TV and radio could take education into people’s homes as a ‘university of the air’ (becoming the Open university in 1969). In 1998, The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain outlined the challenge for the changing needs of the knowledge economy and technological developments in the workplace and society more broadly. The foreword by then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett stated that learning throughout life would increase human capital by acquiring knowledge and skills with the emphasis on creativity and imagination. Blunkett enthused that these enquiring minds would foster a love of learning and contribute to the UK’s future success.

In 2012, the coalition Government commissioned a report titled: Expanding and Improving Part-time Higher Education. The supply of part-time provision was identified as complex, ranging from issues with defining part-time, the focus of part-time to specialist institutions and the need for change for traditional universities to offer part-time, ranging from online materials, infrastructure, extra support mechanisms and the over subscription of full-time courses. The report even went as radical as to say that in the future the line between full-time and part-time could become blurred. The gig economy and changing employment landscape, along with the complex nature society, work and education and their own blurring lines show similarities with this idea. Much of these broader societal changes have been facilitated by digital technology, all of which policy has pointed to as opportunities for education more broadly but especially as an enabler for flexible part-time and lifelong learning.

Harold Wilson in 1963, called for the UK to take advantage of the ‘white heat’ of technology to take education to people’s homes through radio and TV. We now have the technology to take learning to the smartphone, laptop and virtual reality headset. The growth of online opportunities could possibly be another factor at play here in the part-time puzzle. 2012 was coined the year of the MOOC – the Massive Open Online Course by the New York Times.

The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks.”

New York Times, 2012

Low completion rates and concentration of middle-class graduates characterising those who sign up for MOOCs has dampened the 2012 enthusiasm. In 2019, the term MOOC is just part of the offer from global platform providers such as Coursera, edX, XuetangX, Udacity and FutureLearn. These platforms have over 100 million students registered, working with more than 900 universities and over 11,000 courses. The MOOC is the entry point into many other emerging and changing forms of online courses. Beyond the free MOOC, learners can purchase a certificate, complete a microcredential, build credit, make these up into a degree or take a corporate training course. Microcredentials (5-15 UK credits) are small, specific task orientated modules which can be ‘stacked’ into qualifications or to show employers evidence of professional development. The Common Microcredential Framework (CMF) allows for all of these smaller learning credits to be built up into qualifications, potentially across different institutions, should the learner wish to. Add LinkedIn learning and other similar platforms into the mix of options for learners who want to develop new skills linked to their careers or interests with access to a huge repository of learning resources. We can see that those thirsty for new skills and knowledge are not short of options. This diversity and choice in higher education has been coined the unbundled university.

What would the 2020 reboot of Educating Rita look like? A tale of a series of short online courses all stitched together to make up a qualification for career development? Or simply task-based learning ‘just in time’ at the point of need to complete a task. The modern-day Rita might become a coder or data scientist working in the gig economy and not the Bohemian literary graduate of 1983.

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