OU Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean
Key issues to be resolved to avoid unintended consequences
The Open University and Birkbeck, University of London have submitted a joint response to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills consultation on the Higher Education White Paper – Students at the Heart of the System.
40% of students in England study part-time and both institutions advocate a system of higher education funding which:
• Ensures equality of access
• Provides parity to full-time and part-time students
• Enables flexibility of study, and
• Sustains and promotes quality
The OU and Birkbeck welcome the Government’s commitment in the White Paper to widening participation, parity between modes of study, flexibility and quality. However, in order to meet the four principles listed above, five critical areas need to be addressed in order to avoid unintended consequences.
1) Parity regarding marginal places
We are seeking reassurance that part-time institutions such as the OU and Birkbeck, who offer high quality provision to students from non-traditional backgrounds, will have the opportunity to bid for additional ‘marginal’ places in 2012 and beyond.
2) Widening participation allocation
The widening participation allocation enables the OU and Birkbeck to advance social mobility and undertake highly effective outreach activity which lies at the heart of their social justice missions. It is critical that HEFCE recognises the importance of this funding in advance of its consultation on the future of such allocations in January 2012.
3) Transitional Arrangements
There are over 400,000 part-time students in England who are still uncertain about their future funding arrangements. BIS should liaise with HEFCE to publish transitional arrangements for part-time students as a matter of urgency.
4) Pre-entry careers advice
The distinctive offerings and student bodies of the OU and Birkbeck mean that the White Paper ambition for students to be able to look at Key Information Sets (KIS) and ‘compare easily’ with other HEIs is almost impossible. A variety of information, advice and guidance tools and channels will be vital in demonstrating the benefits and options of higher education study to different audiences. Well-resourced pre-entry face-to-face support is critical if non-traditional students are to make well informed choices that result in retention, success and ultimately economic growth.
5) Part-time allocation
The part-time allocation offsets the additional costs faced by the part-time sector that are driven by headcount rather than full-time equivalents. These costs are 15-44% higher than for full-time students. If this were cut, part-time students as a percentage of the total student population could continue to diminish in size as institutions would be dissuaded from offering greater choice given the additional costs. A continuing decline in supply would be counter to Government and HEFCE’s aspiration for parity, flexibility, choice and competition.
Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University said: “We must level the playing field between full-time and part-time higher education in order to develop the flexible, innovative HE sector that a skilled global economy requires. All students, regardless of their background, should be able to participate. The OU’s outreach work has led to 20% of our newest undergraduates coming from the 25% most disadvantaged communities in the country. Continuing this work is vital to our social mission, but it will not be sustainable if we lose the widening participation allocation.”
Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck, said: “The Government has clearly stated its commitment to a successful part-time sector and ensuring that there are a range of higher education options available. This top level support must now be backed up by policy that addresses the issues of the part-time sector and its students: ensuring the sustainability of institutions offering part-time programmes and continuing to support the recruitment and retention of non-traditional students. Part-time education has a vital role to play in providing the flexible and diverse HE sector that both Government and students want to see, and it must be given the support it needs in order to continue to thrive.”
Notes to Editors
* As measured by the Government’s National Index of Social Deprivation 
** According to a report commissioned by HEFCE, and carried out by J M Consulting [August 2003]