Agile Birkbeck supports part-time HE students

Agile Birkbeck supports part-time HE students

Birkbeck students ©Private Birkbeck students ©Private

About the author: Tricia King

Tricia King

Tricia King is Pro-Vice-Master for Strategic Engagement and part of Birkbeck's small leadership team.

Tricia's job focusses on engaging the extended, diverse, passionate and committed Birkbeck community in support of the College and its remarkable students.

'Birkbeck changed my life' is a statement we frequently hear and always appreciate. Students of all ages, background, ethnicity and qualifications on entry use Birkbeck's University of London evening proposition to transform their life chances.

Our students are remarkable people. Their dedication, commitment and determination to succeed is humbling.

They juggle demanding evening study with whatever keeps them busy during the day – mostly paid work and caring responsibilities. For nearly 200 years, we have been engaged in the business of educating working Londoners and we have no intention of being derailed from our mission. But it's not easy.

Our students are all the sort of hardworking people that politicians of every persuasion ought to get behind. So why is it that they always seem to be at the bottom of the food chain in terms of policy and funding support?

It's very clear that part-time higher education has experienced severe market failure market. Since 2012 when the fees went up and part-time students got loans for the first time, recruitment to part-time HE has fallen off a cliff. It shows absolutely no signs of recovery.

Many important people pay lip service to the seriousness of the situation and the critical role part-time HE in terms of upskilling and reskilling the workforce, supporting employers, building the future of society, offering social mobility and improving lives – but nobody is taking action to stem the decline. I cheered when I read John Field's blog that makes the same point.

Luckily, at Birkbeck, we have learned to be agile. Two centuries of 'unintended consequences' means we are resilient. In response to the part-time downturn, we have piloted a new 3 year, 'full-time' evening degree through UCAS that has proved phenomenally successful. Year on year, we have experienced the biggest growth in applications in UCAS.

Students young and old can see real value in studying at a research intensive university at night and using the days to build meaningful work experience. As they can complete in 3 years, they have full access to all the financial arrangements fulltime university students have.

Employers tell us our students have the edge at interview as they have the killer combination of intellectual capital and real world experience. We believe we have re-imagined university study in London and London clearly likes it.

Birkbeck are now about more than part-time HE and we believe we need to shift the narrative a little. We champion transformation through education for hardworking people who are prepared to take their futures seriously and to make incredibly efforts to secure them. We want government and all influential thinkers and stakeholders to join us in imagining a sector that is not solely focused on 18-year-old schools leavers.

Our flexible evening study and the capacity to fit study around work extends to all levels of study and half our students are studying for Masters degrees. Some complete in a year, others take their time and study over two.

We're as keen to open up postgraduate study to non-traditional learners as undergraduate and we're looking into why BME, disabled and first in family students are seriously under represented at this level. We're very keen to work with union learn address this imbalance and to remove perceived barriers to access. One really great fact is that all union members are eligible for a 10% fee discount and we offer the capacity to pay in monthly instalments without interest. That will go some way to helping people tackle the financial barriers to study. Over half of the 693 members who received the 10% discount last year were studying for their Masters.

Innovation has allowed Birkbeck to survive the current crisis but something has definitely been lost. As Peter Horrocks, the inspirational new VC at the OU has said, the alternative to part-time HE for some is not to study at all. We know that there are types of students who are no longer in our classroom, and that's a real sadness to us.

As we head towards our 200th birthday celebrations, it's something we're paying very close attention to. Seeking policy change and raising philanthropic money to challenge the problem is a priority. We want the 'Birkbeck changed my life' mantra to be open to all and meaningful for everyone for the next 2 centuries.

Upcoming events for union members thinking of returning to study. It's not too late to apply for this academic year.

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