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Whatever Happened to the Polytechnics? Part IV – Concluding Comments

March 2, 2018

[Series starts here with Part One].

Here’s Lord Stevenson speaking in the House of Lords in April 2017:

“Where are the policies to reinvigorate part-time provision? The collapse in enrolments at Birkbeck, University of London and the Open University coincided with the hike in course fees and the introduction of maintenance loans. No real change in approach is signalled in the higher education Bill or in the Technical and Further Education Bill, which passed through this House yesterday. … So we have a policy approach which will not work: a system of fee increases, and thereby personal borrowing increases, which will not enhance social mobility or improve part-time provision.”[1]

By cutting all teaching grant to institutions, part-time study is hit because the fee is pro-rata and loan eligibility is restricted and other funding has dried up. In 2012/13, two-thirds of part-time students were ineligible for loans and the proportion getting employer support with fees declined by 35 percentage points (Callender, HEPI October 2015).

Those students were ineligible for loans also because of the Equivalent and Lower Qualifications regulations brought in 2007. ELQ at the time removed direct teaching grant funding for students who had already studied at an equivalent and higher level and prevented them from accessing loan support. Combine with the new fee regime which allowed part-time fees up to £6750 and part-time study becomes exorbitant.

There has been a partial reversal for ELQ – but only for part-time degrees in STEM subjects[2] – not for non-STEM and not for institutional credit, certificates or diplomas etc.

If we are thinking about retrainees – are they more likely to need another full degree or something else?

Wolf further notes that the flaws in the generalised loan logic can been seen with Advanced Learner Loans: their introduction ‘is associated with a near-halving of enrolments at level 4.

“In 2013-14, £115.8 million was paid out for advanced learning loans. This was the first year – but in 2014-15 only a little more, £149 million, was taken up, out of the £397m allocated. Moreover, 94 per cent of the loans were for adults taking qualifications at level 3 and only 6 per cent for level 4.” (ibid. p. 54)

Here, rather than more loans, I see the need for a new set of institutions given a different set of funding incentives to focus on undergraduate-level provision but with a focus on part-time, lifelong and retraining and a commitment to making students a priority, pace Eric Robinson, before subject discipline, research, employer demands or state. Civic, participatory institutions.

Perhaps what I have in mind are something like US community colleges, which provide general tertiary education and the kind of systematic careers guidance which was promised in the 2011 HE White Paper, but never delivered. I see such institutions as receiving direct grant and being thereby an alternative to various voucher schemes.[3] In this way, headline part-time fees would be cheaper than pro rata’d full-time ones.

If Labour is serious about reforming higher education, creating a National Education Service and abolishing fees, it will need to do so by focusing on supporting a different kind of provision rather than the blanket support of existing institutions and provision. Labour’s mistake before the 2015 election was to highlight the cut in full-time fees to £6000 without explaining how that could have beneficial implications for part-time and lifelong study. It is only by reorienting to lifelong, universal provision that a reduction in fees is more than a saving for the future high-earners.

Politically, any government seeking to undo the changes of the last 5-10 years will have the unenviable task of facing down Oxbridge and the Russell group universities. The attraction of the fee-loan regime is clear – the autonomy, the lifting of recruitment caps and prestige. What I am thereby proposing would perhaps mean a new binary in terms of funding. Full-time away from home academic degrees funded on the fee-loan model, but a separate class of institutions concentrating on flexible provision and joining up with FE.

Some former polytechnics and newer universities may want to revert to a teaching focus with a better set of incentives for part-time and flexible. Some FE and adult education colleges – such as Newcastle College, my hosts this evening –  may also be able to come into such a setup. As with the formation of the original polytechnics, families of institutions could be brought together as is happening at London Southbank University.

There will be objections to a move away from a unitary system – but we don’t have the level playing field our ideologues suggest – it is an abstract equality that ignores disparities of wealth and opportunity. We need to “level up” education at the neglected end.

There are though a couple of key messages that should also be addressed – pay and governance. There are lessons to be learned from the failures of local authority involvement in the polytechnics, but we also cannot be sanguine about university-style governance, particularly as universities extend their reach into public services (for example, sponsoring and running schools). University governance is not democratic and the only social control is the attenuated semblance of such: consumer pressure. With any new institutions, students and staff would need to be involved in governance – along the lines perhaps of the reforms suggested in Scotland by the von Prondzynski review – with its emphasis on ‘independent public bodies’.

And, and, and – nothing of Crosland’s vision of sites of collaboration between industry and education can happen if there is not movement of personnel between industry and education and parity of pay between industry and education. The current pay of educators in further education (and casualisation everywhere) sets a huge impediment before any radical scheme: it cannot work with overuse of hourly paid lecturers and it cannot work if one would have a better standard of living administering the department than teaching in it.

I will end with a more philosophical point.  Classically the urban forum is the site of philosophy – where ideas are tested in debate. This was overwritten with the scholarly refunctioning of the monastery and its emphasis on lack of distractions. We do need both models – a research oriented and an engagement model. And by the latter I mean – not the show and tell of much academic conferencing but the cut and thrust of political and street debate. Robinson, whose 1968 manifesto The New Polytechnics is worth revisiting, called for institutions that looked to an urban, community model as appropriate for mass higher education.

Robinson: “One of the social needs which the universities have failed to meet is that of co-ordinating and stimulating intellectual activity in the community generally. This is most notable in respect of the further education of professionally qualified people working in industry, commerce and the public service …” [p. 131]

We are living through the crisis of public expertise as presented by the media- that is partly because the model is so unappealing. “Let us tell you what you should think, like, want etc.” A different kind of institution would be open to a public testing of knowledge distinct from the idea that academic researchers have a message to deliver to the people.

A new polytechnic movement could create and test out knowledge in new form with spaces that would not be dominated by accreditation or by the bestowal of qualifications from figures of authority.

Sites of popular learning predate the polytechnics – working class education projects – but they had much of their energy and raison d’être removed by the recent expansion of formal higher education. Part of the necessary democratic revolution facing the UK is the need to recapture some of what was lost in that transition. We forget that learning and expertise take many forms and that the university is not always the best site for it to happen. Nor should the degree be sacrosanct.

Robbins was accused by Robinson of failing to ask: ‘what is a degree and what is it for?’  Our current government would rather leave such a question unanswered and let a market sort it out. My sense is that the market cannot provide the solution – it will give us more of the same, because of how fees and loans work.

We should instead experiment with funding part-time and lifelong tertiary education differently and in institutions given the special task of linking that to technical, professional and vocational aspirations. New Polytechnics as the ‘anchor’ institutions? A National Education Service that aims at educating our diverse citizenry differently?


This is the final part of four.



[2] PT maintenance loans will also be available for these students from 2018/19.

[3] Wolf’s own recommendation of a lifelong learning entitlement does not appear to have any clear incentive benefits if the repayment terms are initiated once any resource is drawn down.

  1. Brian permalink

    “Moreover, you need to have repaid fully any previous student loan”

    This isn’t correct. As long as you’re not behind on any repayments of a student loan (as with any student loan availability), you can get a part-time fee loan (from 17/18) and maintenance loan (from 18/19) for STEM subjects: regulation 20(b) of these amending regulations exempts these courses from previous study rules:

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve deleted it. I was confusing the issue that arises (or arose) if students had loans taken out for qualifications they did not complete, which is not ELQ.

  3. ps It appears the upper limit is 16 years of loans … (thanks to David Malcolm for clarifying this).
    (sec 144 of 2011 The Education (Student Support) Regulations.

  4. Brian permalink

    Indeed – you could attempt to load as much debt as possible onto plan 2 (knowing it has such a high threshold) and practically the entire additional borrowing would not be repaid (it merely extends the 9% deductions by restarting the 30 year clock).

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