Ministers look the other way as part-time student numbers plummet

Ministers look the other way as part-time student numbers plummet

Paul Stanistreet, NIACE

Figures released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in April highlight the continuing decline in part-time higher education in England. They show that part-time undergraduate student numbers plummeted by almost half – 46 per cent, equivalent to 120,000 fewer students – between 2010-11 and 2013-14. Entrants to part-time undergraduate courses other than first degrees – in the main, foundation degrees, HNDs and HNCs – make up the vast majority of the decline. ‘Other’ full-time undergraduate courses are also declining.

These are astonishing figures, evidence of a crisis in a part of the sector ministers have been publicly keen to develop and support, frequently paying lip service to its importance. Yet its sudden collapse has not only gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream press – fixated, as are many in the sector, on the three-year, full-time, usually residential model of higher education – but it has failed to stir anything but the most modest and, to be frank, half-hearted reaction from the government. This is despite the publication of Universities UK’s report on part-time and mature HE  – which highlighted the extent of the crisis and the need to find urgent solutions – and a campaign – Part-Time Matters – which brought together a coalition of concerned voices, including the Open University, Birkbeck, UCU, NIACE and the WEA.

Despite the best efforts and energy of these and other organisations, the campaign fizzled out, foundering, in part, on the perceived indifference of government. The signal from ministers is unmistakable: provided full-time undergraduate numbers hold up, and show at least some progress in recruitment from the least advantaged sections of society, the decline in part-time study is a price worth paying – a not necessarily welcome but certainly not wholly unacceptable consequence of its reforms.

But ministers turn their back on part-time higher education at their peril. Part-time matters, not only to the hopes and aspirations of individual students and their families, but also to the economy, to social mobility and to the kinds of innovations which democratise and widen access to higher education.

First, part-time higher education is critical to the future success of the economy, particularly if the economy of the future is to be based on high skills and high productivity rather than low costs and low wages. This was well expressed in Lord Browne’s review of higher education, which recommended levelling the playing field between full-time and part-time by extending entitlement to tuition fees and which provided a rationale for many of the government’s reforms in the sector. Browne argued that, in the future, economic growth ‘will rely upon people with high level skills and it is likely to be through part-time rather than full-time study that people in the workforce will be able to retrain and prepare themselves for work in new industries.’ This was very much the view of the government’s 2011 White Paper which announced the extension of tuition fee eligibility to part-time students.

Growth depends both on how many people are in work and on how productive they are while at work, as Mike Campbell argues in the most recent issue of Adults Learning. Skills development not only helps people find work and progress within it, it helps employers drive enhanced productivity growth, which enables higher wages. Gaining new skills and developing existing ones also helps make people more resilient and adaptable, more confident and capable. With 90 per cent of the 2020 workforce already in work, adult skills are going to be a key driver of future economic growth and competitiveness and we should be looking to expand opportunity here rather than narrowing it. The vast majority of part-time students are adults looking to develop their skills and improve their life chances and those of their families. We cannot rely on the skills young people bring to the labour market.

Yet, once again, the figures are stark. As HEFCE’s report points out, between 2010-11 and 2012-13 ‘other’ undergraduate part-time study (i.e. not first degree courses) declined by 85,000 (46 per cent). At the same time, direct funding from employers for part-time study has fallen sharply since 2011-12, when it stood at about 40,000 entrants. In 2012-13, the first year of the government’s funding reforms, it fell to 23,000. This may, as HEFCE suggest, be in part driven by an expectation that students will take advantage of loans, but it should be remembered only students aiming for a qualification at a level higher to one they already hold (the ELQ role), and who are studying at an intensity of 25 per cent of a full-time course or more, are eligible. It is estimated that only a third of part-time students are in fact eligible for loans. The rest have to fund their education up-front.

The next reason is to do with social mobility and the provision of ‘second chance’ education. Part-time higher education has been a key route through which adults who did not fare well in compulsory education can access higher study. Part-time students tend not only to be adults but are also more likely to be from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, with no or low-level qualifications. According to UUK’s report, 44 per cent of part-time students are the first in their family to access higher education and 29 per cent are from low-income groups. Most are in full-time work, studying for vocational qualifications, two-thirds are women and around 45 per cent are parents with dependent children. Not only does part-time HE change the lives of its participants it has an impact on their offspring, with nearly a third of part-time students reporting that their children become more interested in learning as a result of their studies. In many cases, adults progress from shorter part-time courses to first degrees and postgraduate qualifications. For them, part-time study is a crucial way in, a first step into HE following a negative first experience of education.

Third, part-time higher education has been a critical factor in stimulating innovation and supporting wider participation in higher education. An emphasis on the educational needs of adults has been a key driver of change in higher education in the UK, particularly in efforts to widen access, leading to, among other things, the creation of the Open University, the development of distance learning and systems of credit accumulation and transfer, and the establishment of polytechnics (themselves key drivers of the access agenda), while helping to stimulate engagement and new partnerships between higher education institutions, employers and local communities. The demise of university lifelong learning and the extra-mural tradition cut off a steady supply of innovative teaching and engagement practice. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of widening access over the past decades has been done by post-1992 institutions (the former polytechnics) which typically have had more diverse student populations and modes of study, while ‘elite’ institutions have, in terms of intake and modes of study, changed relatively little. If the UK is to respond to the economic and social challenges it faces we need more, not less, of this kind of diversity, and a tertiary education system less riven with binary divisions and class snobbery.

The government needs to take a different, far more urgent, approach to the collapse of part-time higher education. It is clear, though we seem curiously reluctant to say so, that higher fees are having a significant negative impact on the recruitment of mature students, particularly those who would prefer to study flexibly. There is a strong case, I think, bearing in mind the important public and economic good part-time study represents, for government to provide some sort of subsidy to enable institutions to lower costs for part-time courses, which are typically more expensive and time-consuming to run. Getting rid of the well-intentioned but misconceived ‘ELQ rule’, which denies access to loans to students studying for a second degree (and played a big part in decimating university lifelong learning under the last government), would also be a positive move, opening up more opportunities for adult students and sending out a positive endorsement of ‘second chance’ higher education.

Despite government efforts to ameliorate some of these problems (such as the welcome partial relaxation of the ELQ rule), the continuing decline in mature and part-time student numbers is extremely bad news for social mobility and for the economy. Diversity is something that government and institutions need to welcome and see as an opportunity (rather than a threat), and ministers should incentivise it. It should not simply mean more (publicly supported) private providers and greater marketisation.

We need, instead, a system which has something to offer everyone who can benefit from higher education and in which every route is esteemed. We need a diverse, flexible, creative and collaborative tertiary education system capable of meeting the needs of a diverse and ageing population with differing needs and aims throughout their lives. We can no longer afford to neglect the talents of so many in our population or to treat their choices, of course or type of institution, as somehow second rate.

Paul Stanistreet is an editor and journalist, specialising in education. He edits NIACE’s journal Adults Learning and blogs at The Learning Age. He can be contacted at