There is no denying there has been a spectacular acceleration of online learning during the pandemic. Many of the benefits will inevitably remain and blended learning, combining some online study with face-to-face tuition, is likely to be new normal for many. However, there is no escaping from the fact that some hands-on tuition is important for certain courses, particularly in the fields of science, health and the arts, and the next academic year will see increasing numbers of college and university students, and apprentices, return to their bus or train journeys. The transport inequality problem will grow, while the demographic uplift will see more students than ever traveling to learn.
Transport poverty is more than the prohibitive cost of traveling to a place of learning or the lack of income to cover the cost, the fare is only one element. It also concerns accessibility, for example sporadic timetables or no public transport options whatsoever. As you might expect, rural communities are impacted more than most, particularly learners from lower socioeconomic households. The low population density in many villages can result in regular bus routes being unviable.
Accessing even relatively small towns can unlock learning opportunities, part-time employment and social networks. Post pandemic we have the opportunity to implement bold initiatives to integrate transport and education strategies. Levelling up travel to learning will accelerate widening participation and potentially transform rural and isolated communities.
What could be done at a local level?
Local transport partnership strategies – Local authorities can co-develop travel to learn strategies and policies with colleges, universities and employers. A number of colleges use their funding to either subsidise or provide bus travel to their learners. Some universities have identified access to transport as an area of support within their Access and Participation plans. Collaboration will result in an increased benefit-cost ratio for these subsidies and initiatives.
Flexibility in delivery – Colleges and universities should consider producing targeted timetables for their provision where they recruit students from areas with known transport poverty issues. If you are aware a course attracts learners from areas experiencing transport poverty, could you adapt your timetable to alleviate these barriers? If you use blended delivery, can the in-person delivery take place after 9am and finish before the majority of buses/trains stop in the evening?
Reducing the cost – There could be targeted reduced fares for all students and apprentices, regardless of age or if they are in full-time or part-time study. Increasing the number of students using public transport will enhance viability and availability for elements of society within rural communities. It will also have the added sustainability impact of reducing the number of car journeys or the need for parking. Learners of all ages will have an increased ability to access higher paid employment, particularly supporting areas most impacted by the reduction in available labour.
Fundamentally, a locally informed approach to this national issue will produce the most suitable results. It will, however, take national leadership to develop the enabling polices to enhance travel to learn opportunities. The national funding conditions should also reward innovation in tackling a fundamental barrier to levelling up. The Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Education should consider establishing a joint Travel to Learn Commission to advise on national long-term polices to support life-long access to learning opportunities. The Commission should have input from colleges, universities, training providers and employers.
I believe for many it is the access to opportunity that is the fundamental barrier to social mobility. New innovative models of education are part of the answer, for example new universities in poorly served towns and cities such as our exciting ARU Peterborough development. However, these new opportunities won’t realise their full potential if the students who are likely to benefit the most are unable to even make it to campus.
Professor Ross Renton is the Principal of ARU Peterborough and Vice Chair, The Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE)
Photo by Nick Fewings