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The abolition of 'part-time' education?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Sunday, 15 Dec 2019, 14:46

In this end-of-year blog, Professor Stephanie Taylor questions whether the label of 'part time' is appropriate for Open University study.

Are you a part-time student? Do you think part-time university education should be abolished? Before you answer those questions, let's consider exactly what we mean by 'part-time'. The Open University has of course been famous for fifty years as a Higher Education provider for part-time students. However, I'd like to question the continuing use of the term 'part-time' to describe the experience of OU study.

One of the starting assumptions of the Open University was that its students had not moved into university education directly from school. Most of them had followed other paths, and in doing so acquired commitments that would compete with their study as a priority. OU students were likely to have partners and children. They probably had jobs and many had previously completed professional training, especially in teaching, nursing and the Armed Forces, so were working their way up career ladders. (The OU was also popular with retired people and they too could be seen to be studying after work, but in their case on the time scale of a lifetime rather than a working week.) The assumption was therefore that for OU students, however committed, their university education would not be their first priority. 

This contrasted with the situation of full-time students who in those distant days mostly had living grants to attend university (!) so could focus on tertiary education as their main occupation. OU study was part-time because it had to wait until other duties had been fulfilled. This was perhaps symbolised by the timing of the BBC radio and television broadcasts that were part of the study material for early students. The OU programmes were initially scheduled at inconvenient times, late night or early morning, and then often pushed even later, for instance to accommodate sports fixtures. The message was clear. Open University study would have to wait until the rest of life had been attended to.

Roll forward to the second decade of the 21st century and the situation of all UK university students has changed. Fees are substantially higher. Full-time university students no longer receive grants. A high proportion of them combine their study with part-time work as they try to limit the debts they are accruing through their student loans. Open University students may also have taken out student loans to cover their higher fees, and they are still likely to be combining their study with employment and caring responsibilities. In addition, an increasing proportion are studying intensively, registering on two or more modules at once in order to complete their degrees quickly. In terms of study hours, the part-time/fulltime distinction therefore seems much less appropriate.

There are other reasons too why today's Open University students have more complicated lives than the 'part-time' students of the past. We live in a society in which life generally is increasingly pressured and unpredictable. In particular, work and employment have become much more precarious with greater numbers of people self-employed or working on short term contracts. Even for those in secure jobs, working hours are often fluid. Many people now do unpaid overtime, for instance, to deal with work emails from home. The neat division between working time and personal time has therefore been eroded. The old image of the part-time student was of someone who could organise their study into their free time after work, using holidays, weekends and evenings. That kind of tidy separation is now difficult. Life has become less about scheduling and more about 'juggling' to do everything at once, somehow. Ironically, this may be a reason why some OU students are actually increasing their study commitment, in order to try to finish their degrees as soon as possible. 'Part-time' is less meaningful when you don't know exactly how much time is ever going to be available.

However, the final reason why I question the term 'part-time study' holds for both past and present day Open University students. Conventional university education took place in a discrete phase of life and functioned as a transition between school and full entry to adulthood. There is a caricature of university students, particularly applied to those of the 1960s and 70s, as rebels who dress badly, party excessively and participate in violent political demonstrations. Although that image is fading, there is still a widespread expectation, or suspicion, that university is a contained time in which young people may challenge social norms before eventually re-joining the mainstream and settling down. But for OU students, university education is inevitably intertwined with their ongoing life experience. It is not a time apart and for this reason, I would argue, it is more likely to have a long-term influential and even transformational effect on students' world views and life practices. Even the decision to begin OU study is an active undertaking rather than just a semi-automatic 'next step'. Once the study is started, the student's multiple commitments inevitably make it more difficult. Completing a degree is likely to involve a significant personal investment. And because the process of studying is not circumscribed, OU education is likely to force re-thinking and re-interpretation, changing students permanently as their learning impacts on all parts of their lives and on who they are. 

 For all of these reasons, I suggest that OU study is more demanding, more important and more life-changing than the conventional alternative. It deserves a description that acknowledges its specialness, to other people and to the students themselves. Education with the Open University is not 'part-time' but 'part of life'. Congratulations for committing to it and for being an OU student.

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