Report Overview

Part-time undergraduate study is an important vehicle for social mobility, offering an opportunity for those whose work or family responsibilities make full-time study impractical and providing a ‘second chance’ for mature students who may not have followed the traditional route in school.

Authored by Claire Callender from Birkbeck, University of London and John Thompson, ‘The Lost Part-Timers’ investigates the dramatic decline in part-time study over the past decade, with a particular focus on the impact of the 2012/13 student funding reforms.


The proportion of part-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

- 51%

The drop in the numbers of part-time students between 2010 and 2015.

- 61%

The decline in home students in England pursuing Open University degrees.

Key Findings
  • Since 2010, the number of part-time undergraduate entrants living in England attending UK universities and English further education colleges has fallen annually. By 2015, the numbers nationally had decreased by 51%, by 63% at the Open University, and by 45% at other UK universities and FE colleges.
  • This report focuses on the role of the 2012 reforms in student funding, which abolished means-tested grants and introduced fee loans, alongside substantial fee increases. However, recent falls sit in the context of a longer term decline, influenced by factors including: the ending of funding for most graduates taking a second degree; the impact of the recession; and the rise of unrecorded learning opportunities, including massive open online courses (MOOCs).
  • This report shows that the fee increase significantly exacerbated these earlier trends. Open University data provides the most convincing evidence. Between 2011 and 2012, home students from England saw a real increase in fees of 247%, compared to 2% for those from Scotland and Wales. By  2015, numbers in Scotland were 22% down on 2010, Wales 46%, and England 63%. This indicates that a decline in the English numbers would likely have occurred regardless of the 2012 changes, but that it is much higher as a result of the fees increase.
  • Approximately 40% of this decline is attributable to the fee changes. If the numbers in England had declined by the same proportion as those living in Wales – who were unaffected by the tuition fee increases – in 2015 there would have been 149,000 part-time students instead of 106,000.
  • The biggest drops have been among mature students over-35, those pursuing sub-degree qualifications, such as courses leading to institutional credit, and low intensity courses (lower than 25% full-time equivalent).
  • The decline in part-time study has significant knock-on effects for widening participation, particularly as young part-time students tend to be less well-off than those studying full-time. Using the POLAR measure of disadvantage, 17% of young part-time students are from the most disadvantaged group, compared to just 12% of full-time.
  • However, the drop in numbers between 2010 and 2015 has been higher for the most advantaged group of young entrants – 59% compared to 42% for the most disadvantaged group. Nevertheless, this 42% drop is extremely significant for a group that need greater access to higher education.
  1. The government’s Review of Post-18 Education should recognise that the costs of tuition for part time and mature students need to be tackled to reduce barriers to entry. The review should acknowledge the end of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to student finance, and recognise that the mature and part-time sector requires tailored solutions. One option, which calculations for this report show would come at a low or zero additional cost per student, would be to give students who are eligible for the new part-time maintenance loan the option of a tuition fee grant for the first two years of their course instead of having to take out a maintenance loan.
  2. In the longer term, government should consider the most effective use of additional resources to combat the decline in mature and part-time study. Options include widening eligibility for student support (in terms of means-testing and relaxing equivalent qualification conditions), or increased teaching grants to universities through a ‘part-time premium’. The latter option could particularly help to alleviate declines in the supply of part-time courses.
  3. Information on fees and loan eligibility should be much clearer for prospective students. Providing accurate, up-to-date data on fees and ‘fees per full-time equivalent student’ in an easily accessible form should be a priority for the Office for Students. Eligibility criteria should be streamlined to make them less complex and easier to understand.
  4. Resources should be invested in reinvigorating lifelong learning, particularly for the less well-off. In a rapidly changing economy, the need to upskill is likely to become greater and greater. It is essential that this doesn’t lead to a two tier-workforce. Additional resources for supporting lifelong learning should be directed at those with lower levels of education and from low socio-economic backgrounds who would benefit the most.
  5. Data collection that can inform future policy should be improved. There are four sets of information which, if they were available more systematically, would make future analysis much more effective: part-time tuition fees, loan eligibility and loan take up, and means to measure the impact on social mobility of mature entry to higher education.