Baroness Bakewell raises student number woes in Lords

Birkbeck’s President calls debate to highlight collapse in part-time and mature student population and request action to reverse the trend.

Peers showed their strength of feeling as they backed calls for further support for part-time and mature students during a House of Lords debate on continuing education called by Birkbeck President Baroness Bakewell.

She declared the system was in “crisis” as the numbers of PT and mature learners has collapsed and called on the government to address the issue through its ongoing review into post-18 education which began earlier this year.

Birkbeck’s contribution to the HE sector drew widespread praise from the peers who contributed to the debate, who included former Master of the College Baroness Blackstone, with many pointing to the huge rise in tuition fees for the plummet in numbers.

Baroness Bakewell drew attention to the forthcoming 200th anniversary of Birkbeck in 2023 during Thursday's debate as she highlighted the need to reverse the decline which is affecting many other parts of the HE sector, including the Open University.

She said: “There are of course other universities across the country that provide mature and lifelong learning as part of their student offer; several have over 30% of their students studying part-time. They too recognise the direction that future education provision should take and are keen to see it thrive. They too are confronted by problems. I raise this debate because the needs are pressing, the system is in crisis and the Government have now the chance to address this in its policy review.”

Baroness Bakewell referred to a “catastrophic” fall in numbers for part-time and mature students. She went on: “The OU has been hit especially hard, its numbers falling by 30% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. Numbers at Birkbeck have suffered too. The numbers for part-time study are falling everywhere. Social mobility has crashed.

“Institutions have been tracking the reasons and it is quite clear that this steep decline was triggered when the Government raised the cap on part-time fees to £6,750 a year. Their effort to address the crisis by improving financial support for some part-time students through the introduction of maintenance loans has not gone nearly far enough.

“Government policy increasingly sees higher education as a marketplace where students shop for qualifications rather than as centres of learning, broadening student horizons across the whole range of human knowledge. Into this marketplace have come new for-profit universities, some only recently granted degree-giving powers. They offer students long-distance learning towards degrees in the most popular subjects. The insights of face-to-face learning are undervalued and under threat.”

She concluded: "A lot of people in this room know a lot of things about further education. We have high hopes that the Government, in their post-18 review, will tackle what many of us perceive as a major contributor to this country’s economy."

Baroness Blackstone, who headed Birkbeck for a decade until 1997, also criticised the harm done by the steep rise tuition fees introduced under the coalition government for causing the collapse.

She said: “Birkbeck has been forced, for the first time, to admit full-time undergraduates, and the OU has had to slash its courses and sack staff. Birkbeck will soon celebrate its 200th anniversary and the OU its 50th. We should do all we can to ensure that their special remit continues and that their celebrations are real.

“The main cause of the collapse in part-time numbers is the foolish decision by the coalition Government to treble tuition fees. Of course, they probably needed to go up—but to treble them in one go! Part-time mature students with mortgages and families are both debt adverse and price conscious. They have opted out because they will not take the risk of more debt.”

Others who spoke in praise of Birkbeck included Lord Forsyth of Drumlean – who chaired the Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee into post-school education, which took evidence from the College – and Baroness Garden of Frognal, who is a Fellow of the College.

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