It is unlikely that anyone reading this journal needs to be convinced of the argument for including adults in higher education. Nevertheless, let us take a moment to remind ourselves of why we are so passionate about the issue.
We live in a century where change is faster and greater than ever before in our history. True, rumours that the world was round had impact on more of our ancestors’ lives than we might imagine. Not everyone who heard the rumors had to sail around the world, however.
In our contemporary society there are few people who can avoid engaging in the use of our latest discovery, information technology. The global and knowledge economies and the communications revolution touch most people in the world in some way or another. More and more knowledge and information has to be acquired, negotiated and used in daily life and in work.
It is increasingly difficult to be a citizen, a family member or a worker, to be young or to be old, without the acquisition of new skills. And these are not simple skills; they are complex, creative, thought-provoking and challenging skills. We know that many more people are capable of acquiring and using these skills than have the opportunity to do so.
We know that individuals need higher-level skills for their personal development. We know that society needs these skills. We know that communities and families need these skills to help them create new and better ways of living for themselves and for others, whether as part of the ‘Big Society’ or not.
As a society we need these skills for people preparing to work, in work and beyond work. All the research indicates that an ageing population with access to higher education will produce significantly lower costs to the NHS in the areas of mental and physical health. Learning, as we know, is good for you.
We need an educated and thoughtful society; now more than ever before. There are those who are still dramatically excluded from the digital age, yet, for many more, the problem is not access but knowing how to understand and use the knowledge information technology offers. Increasingly, the negotiation of this information needs and supports higher-level skills and knowledge and is accessed via higher education.
If we can agree that these are sound arguments – and the research base for them is strong – then what do our goals look like and how do we work to see them achieved?
There are several parts to this equation. First of all, the need for adults to access HE has to be acknowledged. Individuals need to be helped to understand the benefits of higher education, to aspire to be part of it and to believe that opportunities exist for them. Employers need to be helped to recognise the business value of HE and be prepared to work in partnership to facilitate it. Government needs to be helped to recognise the social and business arguments for higher education for adults and to ease the financial and other pressures to make this possible. Those who provide higher education have to reassess how they deliver their core tasks to a wider and more diverse customer base.
Here is a fundamental barrier. Higher education, and universities in particular, facing a changing world and a very challenging funding environment, are clinging to the norm of full-time study. The HE sector needs to acknowledge that it is entering a new era and that it needs to embrace and drive changes to find new and more flexible ways of working.
Whatever the emerging rhetoric, HE is normally designed for the 18-year-old school- leaver and it is based on a three-year, three- term or two-semester calendar. This system produces graduates, who pay back the costs of their education as their income grows.
Whether they are on adult ‘non-conventional’ short courses, undergraduate or postgraduate programmes, the part-time students who make up 35-40 per cent of the HE population often have to find a corner to squeeze into.
Currently, we call this work ‘part-time’. Government and universities increasingly seek cheaper ways to serve this need, via HE in FE, via short courses or by work-based study, whilst putting their strategic thinking into how to fund full-time study in the context of rising fee levels and caps on student numbers.
While the norm is seen as the expensive full-time model, our part-time adults will always be second-class citizens. This is, I would argue, a fundamental mistake. The vast majority of students, school leavers or older, could benefit from an HE system that was more flexible, worked more in partnership with others and which reflected the real world and its economic and social needs.
We need to rethink what it means to be a student and to rethink the outdated boundaries between adult and school-leaver, between full-time and part-time. Adults who learn or relearn are as valuable to society and the economy as young full-time undergraduates. Indeed, we may find that school-leavers are increasingly being drawn to more flexible ways of studying, and funding their studies.
Yet the current structures, hierarchies and pretensions continue to presuppose that full-time, three-year study is the only reality. Besides the funding issues (government is to be applauded for the concessions it has made on part-time students’ access to loans) we need to make credits genuinely transferable, to provide a wide variety of exit and entry points for students, a 52-week and a 24- hour calendar (at least digitally supported), together with a radical review of what support the wide range of students need.
I want to fight for the needs and rights of adult education, but not as a concession or as an add-on which universities can choose to ignore in favour of what is seen as the more prestigious ‘norm’.
In our new age, learning and relearning must become the new norm. The learning and living patterns of all our students are changing radically and they may, in practice, bring about this change, over time, since they are the consumers. However, there is a strong pragmatic economic need for government and society not to wait but to accelerate the process. As the recession ends, the adult population must be ready with new skills to drive our economy forward. As our population ages so our citizens need to be educated to adapt and change and to help others do the same.
This is not a choice – between the young and the mature, between full-time and part- time – all are part of the whole and this is a fundamental building block of a new society. Put simply, the reality overrides the status quo.
Making a difference
NIACE has made and is still making a difference. All the adults who have accessed new higher-level skills and ways of thinking and being are themselves making a difference. There is a quiet revolution going on which will, I hope, make us even more determined not simply to accept the crumbs but to explain and argue and put on the pressure so that the UK can build a new post-compulsory education system which is the envy of the world for its inclusiveness and its flexibility and its realism.
So many questions remain. Many of the agencies for advice, guidance and encouragement are to be lost, notably the lifelong learning networks. How are we going to cover the work that they have done?
Most of all, will the HE sector think radically? Universities, working in much closer partnership with further education, with adult education providers, with the private sector and employers, could really usefully take a fresh look at how they can serve their customer client base, full-time and part- time, by strategically and bravely rethinking calendars, timetables and ways of delivering. Workplace learning, fast-track degrees, local learning through FE and private providers, e-learning, short courses within a genuinely flexible all-year calendar can all work, not as add-ons but as part of an integrated rethink about how to run and finance higher education in the twenty-first century.
However it is done, it must be done. Adult access to part-time and flexible study is, in my view, simply non-negotiable.
Professor Christine King has been Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of Staffordshire University since 1995. She steps down this summer.