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Time to give proper credit to part-time study

Principals are lifelong learners too and, in my case, my personal development has involved a three-year research project to investigate the experience of Higher National students in my college. The response rate to my survey was good and more than 1,200 questionnaires were returned.

Students' motives for pursuing learning were overwhelmingly vocational.

Many, to their great credit, were studying to improve their performance in their current jobs or to contribute to the success of their organisations.

This should be music to the ears of politicians. After all, this is the rhetoric of lifelong learning policy: the development of the workforce to meet the economic challenges of the knowledge economy.

Another happy coincidence of rhetoric and reality came from the finding that more than 70 per cent described themselves as lifelong learners. So that's more good news for policy-makers - or is it? When asked if Government policy supports lifelong learning, only 25 per cent replied "yes" in 2001, declining to 17 per cent in 2003. There was a similar declining lack of confidence about future support for lifelong learning.

These results raise serious concerns. There has certainly been no shortage of policy activity since devolution in 1999. We have seen a three-phase review of higher education, two parliamentary inquiries, two versions of Smart, Successful Scotland, one lifelong learning strategy, not to mention the Cubie report on student support.

Unfortunately for HN students, especially those who are studying part-time, much of this frantic policy activity seems irrelevant. Too little interest has been shown in the plight of part-time HN students, whose genuine commitment to improving their skills and their economic value to society is marginalised, through lack of financial support.

My research shows that, in reality, the boundary between "full-time" and "part-time" study is blurred, especially for mature students. Hardly any of the students behaved as if they were "full-time", in the sense of enjoying a life of academic study and leisure. Almost all were engaged in a combination of study andor work andor family life in a variety of patterns.

Almost all were "part-time" students in the sense of having other essential commitments which formed an important part of their lives. Yet, policies on tuition fees and student financial support perpetuate a distinction that has no validity for the experience of lifelong learning in colleges.

John Daniel, former vice-chancellor of the Open University, once said that the UK would not progress toward a genuine mass system of higher education unless there was an expansion of part-time study, integration of full-time and part-time programmes, and a funding methodology for institutions and students that encouraged diversity in modes of attendance.

Higher education in colleges in Scotland comes close to meeting these criteria. The majority of part-time undergraduate higher education takes place in colleges and our unitised HN programmes encourage flexible modes of study. The culture and ethos of colleges support students who combine learning with work and family life. What we need is equity of funding for students.

The latest Scottish Executive statistics show a downturn in enrolments for full-time higher education in 2004-05. The most likely explanation is that a buoyant labour market combined with the long-term debt now associated with full-time higher education is causing people to think twice about full-time degrees. Perhaps this should prompt us to encourage people of all ages to seek satisfying work and higher education as complementary instead of mutually exclusive options.

Equalisation of financial benefits for full-time and part-time study would enable each student to choose a pattern of study compatible with their life circumstances and aspirations. It would align policy in respect of student funding with policy in respect of lifelong learning.

It is surely difficult to justify the situation where an employed person who wants to study part-time should receive little financial support, while a full-time student who decides to work should be eligible for a more attractive financial regime.

We should return to the ground-breaking proposals of the Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee which recommended in 2002 a "learning credit" that would provide a personal funding entitlement for full-time or part-time study. It is an idea that needs to find its time now.

Janet Lowe is principal of Lauder College.

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