Money talks, but we need a good speech;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
At last. Tessa Blackstone has announced that part-time higher education students living on low incomes will be eligible for loans of at least pound;500. For too long there has been an easy assumption that since many part-time students in higher education get support from an employer, there was no need to fund them.

The acceptance of that view was the biggest disappointment in Sir Ron Dearing's report on higher education last year.

Mike Fitzgerald, former vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University, told a finance meeting of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning that most "full-time" students had jobs in term-time to make ends meet.

This year's figures for student applications have been revealing. Despite the hype, more young people applied for higher education than last year, even after the funding changes. However, full-time mature applicants were down by about 10 per cent.

A degree may be the best investment you can make in yourself, but mature students already take on substantial debt, for themselves and their families, in order to study.

Two in three mature students study part-time, fitting study alongside other demands on their lives. They have always had to pay fees, and always had to find their own living expenses. What is welcome about this decision is that it makes the part-time option more affordable for more learners, and is a major step towards an adult-friendly system.

Of course, it is never enough. There are still adult students whose only realistic option is to study full-time, and for whom the risk threshold will be too forbidding. A study of Access course enrolments by John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Warwick University, shows a marked shift towards utilitarian subjects and out of the humanities - just when the case for liberal education is back on the policy agenda. But then, if the risk increases it is no surprise if people choose what look like the safer options.

For poorer people there will be a need for scholarships to be available, widely advertised and publicly supported - though there is nothing to inhibit others from offering parallel support. This needs to be on top of institutional Access funds - which can be great, but are only available when you have taken the plunge and joined a course. In addition, there still needs to be a major push to make learning a right for unemployed adults in their first 18 months on the dole.

I was able to make some of these arguments to David Blunkett and Tessa Blackstone, along with the case for parity of treatment for part-time students, when the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education met ministers a week before Tessa's announcement.

There was, of course, not a word to indicate that we might soon have some of our concerns addressed. I was impressed by the discipline you need to be a minister in this government with good news to tell. But I also reflected that there is a broader message ministers need to deliver. Given how much the Government has set in motion since the publication of The Learning Age, there is a need for a major speech joining up the thinking - not only to make clear the range of measures the Government has taken to widen participation, but to underline their importance to others. Despite clear signals that local education authority adult education is a statutory duty to which Government attaches importance, Surrey, for example, is gaily planning to decimate public support for its service. I don't think that would happen if the Secretary of State gave a strong policy steer in a major speech.

This is an odd demand to be making. We need more talk to go with the action. With so much going on, why can't we encourage the politicians to claim credit for the larger picture?

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education

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