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.
The drop in the numbers of part-time students between 2010 and 2015.
The decline in home students in England pursuing Open University degrees.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.