Part-time higher education is a vital engine for social mobility

Having completed both my primary degree and a masters part time, I was very pleased to speak this week in support of an Assembly motion about protecting part-time higher education.

Learning is certainly a lifetime journey and there are a huge range of issues which find people in higher education part time: perhaps due to a career change, the decision to up-skill, or simply the personal development and fulfilment of education and a deeper exploration of an issue of interest — in my own case, it was because I knew everything when I was 18 and it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I noticed a small number of gaps appearing in my knowledge!

Further and higher education is very clearly an economic issue, ensuring our population has access to the skills and knowledge needed to attract high quality jobs to NI and putting people in a position to get them — and in this context disinvestment in further and higher education in Northern Ireland, when all other jurisdictions in these islands are going in the opposition direction, is worrying.

The SDLP has called for a bespoke Part-time Higher Education Strategy for NI which ensures that providing and facilitating part time education makes it a realistic, attractive choice and makes sure this issue does not get lost when the current Department of Employment and Learning is dissolved.

In my contribution, I singled out the Open University (OU) as being very much in tune with the needs of part-time learners, and in this, its fiftieth year, there’s no better time to reflect on the imagination, the vision and the courage which led people like Michael Young and Jennie Lee, to conceive and to bring into being the concept of an Open University.

In recognising education isn’t just for school leavers, the OU is one of the most imaginative and creative projects ever undertaken by a government for the improvement of prospects for people. It has widened access to the highest academic standards for people from all walks and stages of life — making part-time education arguably one of the most important and cost-effective engines for social mobility.