The UK government must act to save part-time higher education

Part-time education is a driver of economic growth and widening access to higher education, argues David Latchman 

December 12, 2018
Two mature university students
Source: iStock

In the current clamour around reducing university tuition fees, it is vital that we do not lose sight of the crucial role that part-time provision plays in broadening access to higher education. We must acknowledge that it differs from full-time education – both in how it is provided and in the students who need it.

Part-time higher education enables people to work while they study, and it is therefore an important driver of social mobility. This is also why it will be vital to reskilling and upskilling Britain’s workforce. If businesses are restricted from recruiting migrants from the EU after Brexit and as automation threatens to make large numbers of jobs obsolete, we cannot rely solely on educating and training 18-year-olds. This simply will not fill the skills gap that will be created, and it will not address the unemployment and underemployment facing those whose jobs are automated.

We need to widen higher education to make it accessible to mature students and those who need to study alongside existing work and family commitments, and those who are reluctant to take out the large loans required by the current system.  

This is why I want the government to change the way that part-time undergraduate degrees are funded. I would like the tuition fees to be reduced by 50 per cent and for this to be backed by a commitment from the government to make up the difference.

The number of part-time undergraduates in England has more than halved since tuition fees increased dramatically in 2012. However, in Wales, where part-time fees were kept low and the additional costs were supported by government, part-time student numbers largely held up during that time.

Birkbeck teaches its part-time degrees over four years. My proposal would see the fee paid by our students cut from £6,935 to £3,500 per year, making the overall cost to students £14,000, rather than £27,750. The remaining 50 per cent of the costs would be funded by a government grant to the university. Other universities teach part-time degrees at different intensities and the fees they charge could be halved too. 

I would like to see a means-tested loan available to cover the fee, with households with an income of less than £30,000 a year eligible to receive a loan for the full amount.

Under this proposal, if maintenance loans continued to be available at their current rate, the cost to the government of cutting the fee in half would be around £1,500 more per part-time student per year than at present. 

If maintenance loans were reduced by half and removed from those with households earning more than £35,000 a year, we estimate that the reduction in fees would cost the government no more than the current system. However, this change would make the part-time degree vastly more affordable for mature and part-time students.

Not only do part-time degrees allow work to be accompanied by study but they also enable people to gain the skills that employers need in an evolving labour market. This makes them particularly attractive to students who want to advance or change their career, because they will likely need to balance their studies with existing professional and caring responsibilities.

There is a huge pool of untapped potential among adults who missed out on university at 18, as highlighted by the MillionPlus group earlier this year.  

However, higher education policy has historically focused on providing full-time degrees to 18-year-old undergraduates, who are joining university straight from school.

Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education, which will report early next year, provides an excellent opportunity for the government to change this. It has the potential to reverse the decline in part-time study and the corresponding decline in mature students by introducing a partnership system of reduced fees and direct government support.

Its terms of reference include encouraging flexible learning (for example, part-time) and its areas of focus include: increasing choice, providing a system that is accessible to all, and delivering the skills that the country needs.

This gives those who acknowledge the importance of part-time and mature students and who are determined to reinvigorate the declining market, some hope that this critical issue will finally be addressed.

However, the recent focus and speculation on introducing flexibility into the undergraduate market by providing more accelerated full-time, two-year courses, or by introducing a range of fees for different subjects with lower ones for those that are less likely to lead to high earning jobs, do not inspire the same hope. While these proposals may boost student numbers overall, there is no indication that they would have much of an impact on the number of mature students or on social mobility, because they focus on full- rather than part-time provision.

This is why I would like the government to change the funding model. At no or minimal additional cost to government, part-time higher education could be made more affordable and accessible for many more students, who in turn would benefit the economy and their communities.

David Latchman, CBE is master of Birkbeck University of London

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