Tuesday, May 22, 2012

No access

This article saddened me.
A report out this week warns of a possible collapse in the numbers of mature students (those aged 21 or over when they start their course), who now make up nearly a third of the student body.

Compiled by the National Union of Students and the university thinktank Million+, which represents the views of universities with a high proportion of non-traditional students, the report, Never Too Late to Learn, urges the government to ensure that further and higher education funding changes do not deter mature student applications. 
Of course we should treat anything with the word "possible" in it as purely speculative, but the change in funding for Access courses does worry me.

For those of you who are unaware, Access courses were set up specifically for mature students without formal qualifications to provide an alternative entry route into university instead of A levels. They are, on the whole, brilliant. These days I can always spot the students who have done Access and not just by age, simply by the quality of their work. It is a far better preparation for undergraduate study than A level - and it shows.

I suppose I am biased. I was involved from the early years of Access and spent fifteen years coordinating and developing courses in both urban and rural settings, as well as being the external moderator for a number of other programmes. It was enormous fun and I am still in contact with many of the students who passed through. There was always something exciting about watching people develop and change, gaining confidence and skills as the year progressed. And some of the end of term piss-ups were legendary.

Yet there was always something odd going on. Although they were life changing and, especially in times of high unemployment, exactly what people needed to break the cycle of alternating between poor jobs and benefit, we continually had to battle authority. The main problem concerned people on benefit who were allowed to study and keep their benefits as long as they were part-time, available for work and studying under twenty-one hours. Then there was a change of attitude as benefits were hedged with a growing number of conditionalities and the pressure started to go on. Some offices interpreted the hours as including private study time and we had to argue with them. Then there was the new 'actively seeking work' test, which led to students being forced off their Access course (that lead to university) to do meaningless Restart sessions (that led nowhere). Over and over again I had to talk to staff in the benefits office to keep students on board. Some were difficult, most were sympathetic, but they too were coming under pressure.

Then came the great moment of hope. I was at a conference shortly before the 1997 general election. The then Labour spokesperson on further education made it clear that when Labour was elected it would abolish the "counter productive" ( I think she also called it stupid, but can't quite be sure) twenty-one hour rule that limited people studying when they were on benefit. I was impressed.

Labour duly won. And yes they changed the rule. They tightened it up and made it more restrictive. Claimants were now limited to sixteen hours of study. It was one of my early moments of disillusion.

It is something that I could never understand. We took people with little or no qualifications off the dole, got them into university and did it cheaply. And still we had to struggle with authority to to do something as worthwhile and so much in the national interest.

I lost touch eventually; by then I was working University Adult Education, where the hopes engendered by a Labour victory soon evaporated as well. And once again, funding changes have lead to the gradual demise of many fine departments as well as to my own premature retirement.

Trying to make sense of it all leaves me perplexed, though I think two attitudes that are very hard to shift are crucial. The first is that there is a range of prejudices about precisely who we should expect to be a student. Age plays a role. I have given up being irritated when higher education is being spoken of as being important for 'our young people'. Then again, so does class. For all the rhetoric about the inclusion of people from 'less well-off backgrounds', there is little incentive to make the profound institutional and cultural changes that are needed to make wider participation a reality.

But the most important one is that, despite all the grand proclamations we hear about change and novelty, there is a deep suspicion of unorthodoxy ingrained in our institutions. If it is different, it can't be as good. I mean people still talk of A levels as the 'gold standard'. An odd metaphor, though perhaps an apt one, as we abandoned it in 1931 because of the damage it was doing to the economy. The irony is lost on them.

And that is the problem. Adult education in general has always been the exception, the embarrassing relative who won't be quiet and just fit in with everyone else. Popular and populist, it is both voluntary and successful. And it really lets the side down by being innovative and creative. At its best it is the antithesis of orthodoxy and that will not do. That will not do at all.

1 comment:

Anton Deque said...

'Broadening horizons' was once enough of a justification. It is all too depressing. Fortunately I am off to Hell in a handcart and it is up to others now. You voted for this, it's yours.