Brenda Gourley: Now the Government must top up part-time education too

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The Independent Online

There is great debate at the moment about university funding - and the Government is proposing that the extra funding that universities undoubtedly need be met by charging additional tuition fees to students. At the moment universities in England are already charging fees of £1,125 for a full-time undergraduate student (with remission for poorer students). Part-timers also pay and there is no imposed limit on these, although a recent survey indicated that the average fees charged by English universities in 2001/02 was £1,059 (per full-time equivalent year) suggesting the fees are broadly similar.

The Government is proposing that universities in England should be able to charge full-time students up to £3,000 per annum from 2006. To make this affordable it is offering students the opportunity to defer payment until they graduate and are earning above £15,000 a year. It is offering grants, fee waivers and compulsory bursaries (equivalent to the full fee liability) to students from poor backgrounds. These changes will enable English universities to raise approximately £1.4bn additional to what they raise at the moment - virtually double the amount of resource available to teach full-time students. So far, so good - or bad - depending on your point of view.

What about the funding of part-time students? To say nothing of providing necessary funding to institutions which cater wholly to part-time students (the OU and Birkbeck). The Government is alert to the issue of part-time study. But current and proposed arrangements will not support an increase in part-time students' fees to anything like the support for full-time students. Although the Government is increasing the amount of support available to students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 2004/05, there will be no facility for part-time students to defer payment of their fees, or to repay their fees at a rate they can afford, or benefit from interest-free repayments. There will be no facility for the poorest students to receive a full remission of fees. Although the poorest student will be able to receive help with fee payments, the maximum fee waiver (available to those earning less than £14,600) will be capped at £1,125 per full-time equivalent year and the maximum grant will be £575 per full-time equivalent year. Employers will help some students, but not many. About 16 per cent of OU students receive financial help from their employers. And there will be no increase in the resource made available to the OU and Birkbeck.

At the moment, combined university and Government funds support approximately 24,000 students who cannot afford their fees. The Open University has always provided a substantial Financial Assistance Fund from its own income, and there are in place facilities to borrow and pay back over an extended time, operated at the university's own risk and not the Government's. However, there is a limit to what one institution can afford.

The Secretary of State, in introducing the new Bill to the House, emphasised "the Government's strong commitment to promoting access to higher education for part-time and mature students" and indicated his Minister "will consult on ways in which the funding system might further support the development of part-time study in higher education". So far, there is no indication of what this support might be. However there cannot be a system where institutions with large numbers of full-time students will be able to increase their fee income and improve their spending on both full-time and part-time programmes while institutions, such as the Open University, will be able to do neither. Indeed we will be worse off, competitively speaking.

The impoverishment of part-time provision serves no purpose. It is in the interests of the economy that people are enabled to study flexibly on a part-time basis because they can do so from home while continuing to work. And as the Government effects changes to the higher education system with uncertain results, it is in the national interest to have an excellent bedrock of provision for those who wish to exercise the choice. The OU provides that bedrock.