Claire Callender unpicks the key findings from Sutton Trust latest research investigating the decline in part-time students.

The 2012/13 tuition fee hikes in England resulted in more than 43,000 ‘lost’ potential part-time undergraduate students, according to new research published by the Sutton Trust. Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, the number of part-time undergraduate entrants at UK universities and Further Education (FE) colleges in England decreased by 51%. The fall in entrants at the Open University of 63% was even greater, and higher than the 45% fall at other universities and FE colleges in England.

For over a decade part-time student numbers have been falling, but they have nosedived since the 2012 student funding reforms, and have fallen annually since then. The reforms replaced means-tested tuition fee and course grants with tuition fee loans, and reduced the teaching grants universities received from government – leading to large tuition fee increases. These reforms had sought to stem the long-term decline in part-time study and to open up access to higher education. In reality, they have had completely the opposite effect. They largely explain the spectacular and persistent falls in part-time undergraduate enrolments.

By comparing trends for entrants living in England, with those living in Wales, who were unaffected by the 2012 reforms, we estimate that around 40% of the decline in entrants in England between 2010/11 and 2015/16 was caused by the large increase in tuition fees in England.

The new loans for part-timers introduced in 2012, were designed to protect students from these tuition fee rises, to make part-time study more affordable, and to safeguard access. They have not. Universities have changed their provision so that more students qualify for these loans. Consequently, many have abandoned short, continuing education type courses, and courses leading to sub-degree qualifications – changing the very nature of part-time provision. (There are fewer students taking degree courses too.) But despite these efforts and students selecting courses that qualify for loans, by 2015/16 less than half of all part-timers qualified for loans because of the loans’ restrictive eligibility criteria.

Without loans, students still have to pay their tuition fees up-front and out of their pocket, or abandon the idea of studying. As research repeatedly demonstrates, upfront fees and fee increases depress higher education participation unless accompanied by equivalent increases in student financial support. The falling enrolments are predictable.

Of those part-time students who qualify for loans, around 59% take them out compared with over 90% of their full-time peers. However, overall, only a quarter of all part-time entrants to universities and FE colleges in England take out loans.

Clearly, some part-time students are willing to borrow to study. However, as the dramatic fall in part-time enrolments demonstrates, for many, part-time study is unaffordable. It is now too expensive. Many potential part-time students do not consider loans as an adequate safeguard against the risks of part-time study. And as government research confirms, they are far more price sensitive and debt averse than their younger full-time peers probably because they are older, have families and existing financial commitments.

Their reluctance or inability to pay higher fees upfront, or via loans, is understandable. Taking out a loan and having to pay, in reality, an additional 9% in marginal tax to repay their loan, or more than £6,000 a year for fees, is a leap of faith when the returns on their investment are unknown and uncertain.

The solution to declining part-time numbers is not to increase opportunities for taking out loans, as governments have done. This has not worked. More loans will not reverse the decline. Instead, we propose that those eligible for the new maintenance loans should have the option of a tuition fee grant for at least the first two years of their studies instead of taking out a maintenance loan, at virtually no extra unit cost to the taxpayer.

If the government is committed to: the national skills strategy; reskilling and upskilling the workforce; and widening higher education participation it must take radical action to stop the decline in part-time study. The Review of Post-18 Education must acknowledge there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to student finance, and recognise that the mature and part-time sector requires tailored solutions.

Professor Claire Callender from Birkbeck, University of London is co-author of ‘The Lost Part-Timers‘ with John Thompson.

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