UK employment is now at its highest level since 1975 with almost 75% of 16-64 years olds now in work. At the same time however, we have are more unfulfilled job vacancies than ever previously recorded (777,000) and a severe skills shortage, especially in STEM occupations. Research by Engineering UK suggests that an additional 1.8m engineers and technically qualified people are needed by 2025 and these issues will only be exacerbated by the potential effects of Brexit.
The Government has, reassuringly, begun to show signs that it recognises this skills crisis with the publishing of the Industrial Strategy Green paper, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy and a renewed look at technical education through T-Levels and Institutes of Technology.
The success of these interventions remains to be seen but we can predict fairly confidently that they will not be sufficient to overcome our skills gap in its entirety because they miss a crucial component - addressing the collapse of part-time study in higher education.
Between 2006 and 2016 part-time undergraduate student numbers in England dropped by 60 per cent. The number of mature students also halved over the same period.
Part-time study provides an invaluable route into higher education, both for those who are engaged in 'learn-while-you-earn' degree apprenticeships or employer sponsored degrees and also for individuals who may not have had the opportunity to attend university straight out of school and now require the flexibility to continue their education part-time whilst meeting work and family commitments. It is also going to have increasing importance in achieving the need to undergo retraining as the rate of change in many sectors continues to escalate.
The provision of part-time education therefore is beneficial for social mobility, encouraging under-represented groups into higher education and allowing for the continual up-skilling of the country's workforce. Over 40% of London South Bank University's students study part time, and this is representative of the university's mission to provide professional and technical education to all who can benefit.
The cause of the collapse in numbers is largely due to the increase in tuition fees introduced in 2012, which included a requirement for part time students to commit upfront to studying for a whole degree if they wished to be eligible for a loan and to begin repayments from four years after the start of their course.
For full time students this increase has, partially, been ameliorated by the availability of loans and maintenance grants; and to give it its due, the government has acknowledged this and introduced in its most recent budget maintenance loans for people entering part time degrees, and doctoral loans of up to £25,000 to support higher-level study, starting from 2018. This is unlikely to have any significant impact on the decline however. The majority of part-time students are 'mature' learners and likely therefore to already have significant financial responsibilities and ongoing obligations to family, mortgages and work which make them unwilling or unable to take on a large additional amount of debt. This is undoubtedly the crux of the problem and inevitably it will be the least social and financially advantage who are the most excluded.
The Industrial Strategy Green Paper has indicated that the Government is open to "exploring ambitious new approaches to encourag[e] lifelong learning, which could include assessing changes to the costs people face to make them less daunting".
If the next Government is serious in this aim and wants to re-open this channel to social mobility and career advancement then it needs to undertake a serious examination of how the burden of debt could be eased for those seeking to undertake part time study to resolve how we assist those caught between their current financial responsibilities and the desire for personal and career advancement.
Whilst apprenticeships and new forms or learn while you earn solutions should have an impact it will not meet the needs of many. The solutions could include allowing learners to defer the period of repayment or, more radically, opening up the use of the apprenticeship levy to allow employers to support a wider range of higher education courses to upskill their employees. Any such move should also see the removal of the Equal or Lower Qualifications restrictions which effectively, confine an individual to the educational path they choose when they are seventeen or, for example, would prevent a STEM graduate from undertaking a business degree to enable them to take up a directorship within their firm.
The 3 year 'boarding school model' for higher education only serves a proportion of learners. If the Government truly wants a highly skilled 'global trading nation' then it will need to support a flexible and diverse higher education sector that is able to deliver it.