Brenda Gourley: Top-up fees must take account of a changing education environment

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The Independent Online

I wish it were otherwise but the fact is that top-up fees represent a temporary fix to the problem of funding higher education - helping some parts of the sector more than others and, ironically, "punishing" those parts that have responded to the requirements of lifelong learning.

Only full-time students are charged the top-up fee and therefore, those universities with high proportions of full-time students attract large sums of money - and those with substantial proportions of part-time students forfeit their equivalent.

This cannot be right. The English Funding Council and Government have promised a review of the system of funding but this is more difficult than it would at first glance seem. Consider a student who registers full-time for a degree, manages to work 40 hours a week at Tesco and pays £3,000 per annum for the privilege of the university experience. How different is she from one of her fellow students who registers part-time, manages to work 40 hours a week at Tesco and pays her part-time fee of something a lot less than £3,000?

Given the flexibility many universities are introducing into their programmes (including opportunities to access and study online), the difference between part-time and full-time is blurred and indistinct. Many universities offer a combination of learning possibilities. Given the escalation in costs, more and more students have to undertake work for a varying number of hours per week.

Would this were the only problem. The present funding formula is based on the fundamental premise of a university organised primarily around providing full-time education to an 18- to 24-year-old age group at a specific physical location where are housed all the disciplinary specialists necessary to the task. It was an affordable model when a small percentage of the population went to university and it was possible to attract sufficient academics to the task. In a country described as a "knowledge" society, where a very substantial proportion of the population needs a high level of skills and aspires to higher education, the model comes unstuck. The demands on the public purse become so high that the model itself and the assumptions on which it is based have to be re-examined.

With the growing need for mid-career education, in America (for example) already more than half the people enrolling in higher education are over 24. At the same time a substantial proportion of the academic body is due for retirement - and cannot be replaced in sufficient numbers to keep the old model of teaching a proposition. "Bricks and mortar" campuses will not be able to keep up with demand. Substantial online instructional capability has to be a standard feature of all institutions and instructors cannot rely on lectures as the dominant mode of instruction. The Open University has demonstrated there is another way - and one would hope that we see more collaborative partnerships between the traditional and the new modes promoted and proved by open and distance learning institutions.

Brenda Gourley is Vice-Chancellor, The Open University