The cost-of-living crisis must not stall our progress in making learning open to everyone
Cerith Rhys Jones
With the winter months ahead, people across Wales are bracing themselves for extreme pressures on household finances, over and above what they’re already experiencing.
A combination of factors, from rocketing energy bills to spiralling mortgage rates and rent costs, and inflation at its highest since the early 1980s, are all putting the squeeze on people up and down the country.
What’s true of wider Wales is also true of its student population. Just last month, NUS Wales President Orla Tarn spoke of their increasing “concern about what impact the cost of living crisis is having on a generation that has already faced so much disruption and uncertainty.”
It is true that Wales’ students benefit from the most generous maintenance support package in the UK, and indeed Europe.
That maintenance system, introduced in 2018, has made it possible for thousands of people to take up part-time higher education. A great many of those, from some of Wales’ most disadvantaged communities, have chosen to study with The Open University in Wales.
Given the OU’s track record as a university for everyone, regardless of background or circumstances, that is, perhaps, unsurprising. The flexibility of the high-quality higher education we offer enables people to fit their study in around their many other commitments and responsibilities.
The challenge, now, is that, even with that excellent maintenance support system, part-time students are facing some very difficult decisions.
For some, the maintenance package they receive is a lifeline; it may represent a significant proportion of their income. In less challenging economic times, it has enabled them to meet the financial demands of daily life while they study. However, as we all know, those demands are becoming evermore difficult, for all of us.
Many of the OU’s students share their home with their family; they may be raising children or caring for elderly loved ones. Three quarters are in employment alongside their studies, and may find themselves facing instability in their work, or conversely, needing to take on more hours in order to make up the shortfall in their income.
The financial pressure they are facing cannot be understated.
In such difficult times, it is understandable that people’s priority is, as far as their means allow, to provide for their most fundamental, most essential needs. A roof above their head, food on the table, and warmth.
That may sound melodramatic, but I’m afraid it is no exaggeration that these are the kinds of problems that people in every corner of Wales are facing.
The very real risk under these circumstances is that people simply do not have the emotional bandwidth, or for that matter anywhere near sufficient headroom in their finances, to allow them to consider higher education.
People will simply say they have more pressing concerns at the moment, and who could blame them?
But this is not a situation that Wales can afford.
Quite aside from the particular national and global economic circumstances of the day, we already knew that our labour force is smaller today than it was some years ago, that we are generally less qualified and less productive as a nation, and that our businesses report significant skills shortages.
Over the last few years, education providers together with the Welsh Government have made some excellent progress in addressing these challenges. It is now unquestionably easier for people to take up part-time higher education and to upskill and reskill as adults.
But today’s economic climate risks stalling this progress. Few will argue against the idea that expanding adult learning and boosting our nation’s skills base are critical to achieving growth and resilience in our economy and boosting the prosperity of our communities. The key question is: when?
Some will argue that when public money is tight, adult education can wait. Some decisionmakers may even be tempted to think of it as a luxury that can be deprioritised until the public finances have improved.
We say no. Adult education is not just a luxury; it is essential. Expanding it is not a task that can be put off; it is urgent. In fact, it is as crucial to our immediate recovery as it is to our long-term growth.
Our policymakers need explicitly to recognise that adult education and skills are vital enablers of economic growth, and they need to back that up by committing to continuing to invest in this area.
Doing that in today’s fiscal climate necessarily includes supporting people over and above what is already on offer.
It is surely not controversial to suggest that our social and economic infrastructure should reflect the massive financial uncertainty and upheaval people across Wales are facing – and respond to it.
It should ensure that the very cost of living is not itself a barrier to learning. Indeed, as well as ensuring that the cost of living is not a barrier to people accessing learning, there is also a clear need for support to enable people to continue learning.
We would naturally support calls made by others to ensure that sufficient support is in place to help students through these times. It is critical that any such measures reflect the specific circumstances and needs of Wales’ part-time students, who often face different challenges.
Together, we have done so much good work these past few years to increase the opportunities for people to learn as adults, to take up part-time, flexible higher education, and to expand their skills and horizons.
The cost-of-living crisis cannot and must not stand in the way of us keeping up this momentum.
People all across Wales, and our future generations, depend on it.
Cerith Rhys Jones is Senior External Affairs Manager for The Open University in Wales
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