David Latchman: Want a second degree? It'll certainly cost you...

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The Independent Online

A few weeks ago, with no warning, the Government announced its intention to axe the funding for people wanting to take a second degree at the same level in a different subject. Until now, universities were funded for both home and EU students taking a second qualification on the same basis as those taking their first. Now this is to be abandoned. Any student wanting to improve their skills in this way will be faced with prohibitively high annual fees of up to four times what they pay now.

This change will affect part-time students and the institutions that teach them particularly seriously. In future, students wanting to improve their skills will be treated the same way as non-EU overseas students, with universities receiving no government funding for teaching them. Institutions that specialise in part-time education, like Birkbeck and the Open University, have a high concentration of these students so will be the worst hit. However, these changes will affect a large number of universities and the effects will be far reaching. All part-time students will suffer, not just those taking a second qualification.

Universities will lose good students who cannot pay the increased fees. As these students have already been to university, they help to provide a better learning environment for all stud-ents. Hence, the change will create a worse experience for the remaining students. Courses may become unviable, removing choice for part-time students and the services universities provide will be affected.

Birkbeck has many students who embark on studying for a second undergraduate degree later in life to make themselves more employable or to change career direction.

One of those is Bernadette Wren, a consultant clinical psychologist and family therapist, who helps children to overcome their psychological problems. A key point in her career was when she decided in her thirties to undertake a BSc in psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London, while working during the day.

Few would doubt the importance of Bernadette's work and the commitment she must have been required to achieve her present position. Yet the government's recent policy change would render her pathway almost impossible in the future.

The reason is that in her early twenties, Bernadette completed a degree in philosophy. This first degree would therefore mean she would have been charged a much higher fee for her psychology degree under the Government's proposals, making it impossible for her to pursue her chosen career.

Many of Birkbeck's students are women who are returning to work, having taken the time out to have a family and who find they are left behind as the competitive work market has moved on. These are professionals, who would have taken a first degree, but are now left unable to improve their skills for the changed workplace unless they are prepared to pay the same fees as overseas students. Instead of being able to retrain to gain employment they will have to seek jobs that are of a lower standing than the ones that they left to have a family.

For the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (a government department that has renamed itself to focus on the need for higher education institutions to deliver graduates with skills) this is a short-sighted move.

Obviously, educating a student without a previous degree will help to meet the Leitch skills agenda target of ensuring that 40 per cent of the workforce has university-level skills by 2020, whereas funding students with a degree already will apparently do nothing to help the Government meet this. However, this move undermines the institutions best placed to deliver the skills training agenda and actually makes it less likely that these targets will be met. It will certainly put people off going back to university to retrain or improve their skills, while those studying for their first degree will get a poorer learning experience.

Furthermore, as John Denham himself said in a speech at the Universities UK conference a few days after the announcement, the only way of ensuring that the 40 per cent target is achieved is by getting mature learners in work to study part-time. It is paradoxical that these changes hit the institutions carrying out exactly the sort of higher education the Government aspires to, as well as making it much harder for people like Bernadette to achieve their goals.

The writer is Master of Birkbeck College, London University