Lifelong learning? Part-time undergraduate provision is in crisis

With student numbers falling as fees rise, drastic action is needed to widen participation, says Claire Callender

January 24, 2018

The Labour Party’s proposed National Education Service seeks to integrate the disparate parts of the education system by providing services from the cradle to the grave. It incorporates an education system that offers opportunities for people to upskill and reskill over their lifetime by providing free lifelong learning.

According to the party, this “will deliver productivity and growth to the whole economy while transforming the lives of individuals and communities”. This emphasis on lifelong learning is welcome. So often in UK skills policy documents, proposals focus on initial education and training rather than the needs of adult learners.

Arguably, improvements in economic performance, innovation and productivity ultimately depend more on enhancing the skills of the existing workforce than on improving the quality of new entrants to the workforce. Most of the workforce of 2030 is already working now, and past the stage of initial training. Part-time study is an economic, practical and often preferred option for both employers wanting to upskill their workforce, and for individuals wanting to re-skill or improve their existing skills. Its wider social and economic benefits, and the benefits to individuals, are well documented. 

Part-time study can achieve greater social equity by helping individuals escape from low pay and low productivity and by widening higher education participation. It gives people a "second chance". Compared with full-time undergraduates, the majority of part-time students are women, aged over 25, who have family responsibilities, while a sizeable proportion have no or low-entry qualifications. Four out of five work, mostly in full-time jobs in higher-level occupations in the service and public sector. They fit their studies around their jobs and domestic commitments. 

Yet our current system of lifelong learning, especially part-time undergraduate provision, is in crisis. Since 2010/11, the number of part-time students starting an undergraduate qualification at an English university has fallen by 61 per cent, to just 100,000 students. Last year alone the numbers declined by more than 8 per cent — the seventh successive year there has been a drop. Today part-timers make up just 20 per cent of all undergraduate entrants. The fall has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do "bitesized" courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications – all typically “widening participation” candidates. 

Several factors have contributed to the decline. Most significant is the 2012/13 student funding reforms. These changes to part-time funding aimed to open up access to higher education, make it more affordable, and encourage more people to study part-time. They have had the opposite effect. 

In 2012/13, the government withdrew most of the public funds it gave universities for teaching. Higher tuition fees, capped initially at £6,750 a year and now £6,935 for part-time undergraduate courses, replaced these lost government funds. As a result, tuition fees have doubled or tripled since pre-2012 levels. To pay these higher fees, part-time students became eligible for government-funded loans, just like their full-time colleagues. Part-time bachelor degree students begin repaying their loans four years after starting their course and when earning above £21,000 (rising to £25,000 in 2018/19). They pay nine per cent of their income over £21,000, with any outstanding debt written off after 30 years. For many who are working, this means starting to repay their loans while still studying and before they have got their degree, unlike full time students who repay their loans when they leave university. 

There are two problems with these loans. First, the eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Consequently, the majority of part-time undergraduates do not qualify for loans, mostly because they already have a higher education qualification. Instead, they face far higher fees that they need to pay upfront and out of their own pocket. Unsurprisingly, this has contributed to a fall in enrolments. Research from across the globe repeatedly demonstrates that upfront tuition fees and fee increases tend to depress higher education participation, particularly among disadvantaged students, unless accompanied by equivalent increases in student financial support.

Two misplaced assumptions inform this policy: that employers pay for their employees’ fees; and that because most part-time students work, they can afford high fees. In fact, only a select minority of part-time undergraduates get such employer help. In addition, immediately after the 2012 funding changes, the number of part-timers receiving employer support fell. High fees are a barrier to employers as they are to students. 

The second problem with loans is that their terms and conditions appear unattractive to those who are eligible for them. Some who are eligible for loans are not taking them out. This suggests that potential students do not necessarily perceive these loans as an adequate safeguard against the risks of part-time study. Inevitably too, some are debt averse and refuse to borrow, just like some of their full-time peers. Yet without loans, they cannot afford the high fees and so cannot participate in higher education. 

For some, then, part-time study is now too expensive and unaffordable. Part-time students, who are older and have substantial family and financial commitments, are far more price sensitive than their younger full-time peers. Their unwillingness or inability to pay the higher fees upfront or via loans is compounded by wider economic factors. Their discretionary and non-essential spending, including expenditure on study, is likely to be constrained in times of economic hardship and stagnating wages. Taking out a loan and having to pay, in essence, an additional nine per cent of marginal tax for loan repayments, or forking out more than £6,000 a year for fees, is a leap of faith when the returns on their investment are unknown and uncertain. 

Indeed, evidence from international studies on the financial returns from lifelong learning in the form of higher earnings and improved employment opportunities is mixed. Yet student loans are said to be justified because of the assumed financial returns of higher education and the belief that those who benefit financially from higher education should contribute towards its cost. For all these reasons then, loans may not be the right policy instrument for encouraging greater participation in part-time study. 

The decline in demand for part-time higher education study has led to a fall in supply, especially at research-intensive universities and in short, less intensive institutional-credit bearing courses. 

The part-time undergraduate market is more volatile and unpredictable than the full-time market. There are no longer any financial incentives for universities to provide more costly and risky part-time courses especially when, with the lifting of the cap on student numbers, they can fill all their places with full-time students. Consequently, universities have closed their part-time courses, especially those below the bachelor degree level – typically vocational and short courses. This matters for part-time students because they are far less mobile than full-time students because of their work and family commitments.

When such local courses close, their access to higher education may close too. The part-time undergraduate sector in England has been the key victim of 2012-13 reforms of student funding. There has been a market failure. Any government committed to re-skilling and upskilling its workforce; averting the downfall of the part-time undergraduate sector; encouraging more people to study part-time; opening access; widening participation; and making part-time study affordable, will need to take drastic action. This has to tackle high tuition fees, a lack of affordability and debt aversion.

A truly National Education Service that abolishes tuition fees and provides free lifelong learning wherever and whenever a student wants to study, will go a long way in addressing this. It would also need to give part-time providers additional funds – a part-time premium – to compensate for any reduced income from lower fee income. Above all, there is a need for the political will to confront the challenges that part-time study poses. 

Claire Callender is professor of higher education at Birkbeck and University College London Institute of Education. This is an edited version of an article from Life Lessons: A National Education Service that leaves no adult behind, published today by the Fabian Society, with support from the University and College Union.  

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