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Dearing 'has failed part-time students'

Leading figures from the adult education world this week accused Sir Ron Dearing of failing part-time students by refusing to include them in his funding proposals.

Sir Ron's 1,700-page review of the future of higher education argues that even state-backed loans for part-time students would be too heavy a burden for the public purse.

Sir Ron was accused by adult education leaders of failing to grasp the issues facing part-timers. They have urged the Government "to make good the deficiencies of the report".

One of the toughest critics is Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education and deputy chair of the Government's lifelong learning task force. He will help to draft the lifelong learning White Paper for this autumn and has pledged to press for a better deal for part-time students.

He said: "This report is a very severe disappointment. It continues to say - despite all the official rhetoric of Britain being committed to lifelong learning - that the only real learning is full-time learning.

"Under his proposals you are OK if you are well-off and you are OK if you are desperately poor. But he offers nothing for those with poor employers or low pay who are desperate to escape the learning poverty trap."

Sir Ron proposes a scheme to waive university fees for the poorest students, to make sure students on benefits are not denied a place. This would cost around #163;50 million a year.

But there is no recommendation to relax benefit rules to make access to higher education easier for the jobless.

Ministers have announced a relaxation of the 16-hour rule which limits the studies of claimants, but have not said how far the rules would be relaxed for the long-term unemployed, nor what courses they would be offered.

The report says: "We are conscious of the potentially heavy cost to the public purse involved in making subsidised loans universally available to part-time students, given that the vast majority of this group currently pay fees despite the unavailability of loans.

"Many part-time students currently have their fees paid by their employers, a contribution which we would certainly wish to see maintained. We cannot recommend that these costs, even on a loans basis, are transferred to the Exchequer."

Sir Ron's committee also considered the possibility of loans to help part-timers with their living costs, but ruled out any possibility of subsidy.

"There is a high proportion of part-time students who are in employment and therefore able to support themselves. Moreover, it would be extremely expensive."

But this argument is not accepted by Geoff Peters, acting vice-chancellor of the Open University.

He said: "The report states that choices between part-time and full-time study should be financially equitable but it does little to bring that about. There are no proposed changes to the funding of part-time study.

"If we must ask all learners to make a contribution to the cost of their study, let us give them equal and fair entitlement to loans and other forms of public support."

The adult education providers were not impressed with Sir Ron's assertion that employers should meet costs.

Professor Peters said: "Saying that employers must be expected to pick up the bill is a cop-out. Employer support for part-time undergraduate study is minimal and employer support of professional and postgraduate study is variable.

"The report embraces the vision of a learning society, but it does little to bring it about."

He believed that Sir Ron's review failed to tackle the big question - "How are adult part-time learners to be helped to pay for tuition fees, computers and study costs?"

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