The plight of part-time students is one of the least attractive aspects of this Government's stewardship of higher education. Despite the introduction of limited fee waivers and some recent improvements in grants, part-time students remain immeasurably worse off than their full-time counterparts.
And, while social class data are unaccountably sketchy, it is clear that part-timers are often among the most needy students, as well as being vital to the achievement of ministers' targets. They are invaluable to widening participation, while lifelong learning and the skills agenda would be pipe dreams without the sacrifices that part-timers endure.
In the circumstances, this week's report by Universities UK is a remarkably moderate document. It spells out the risks of stagnation, or even decline, and debunks the more optimistic claims made in this field.
But it recognises the high cost of offering part-timers full support, acknowledging that deferred tuition fees would not be a worthwhile investment. Modest proposals to lower the threshold for state support and review the bar on grants for those with any higher education qualifications should be taken all the more seriously as a result.
Ministers can point to rising numbers of part-time students since Labour came to power, but that is to ignore the current signals. Previous levels of growth have not been sustained, and higher fees are likely to have more of an impact than has been seen on full-time courses. The UUK research suggests considerable price sensitivity among students and among employers, who support up to a third of part-timers. If the report is correct in its estimate of £600 as the level of fee that most students would contemplate, a pro rata share of Pounds 3,000 top-up fees would have a devastating effect on recruitment.
From the first days of Labour administration, through the 2003 White Paper and the subsequent top-up fees debate, part-time students have been promised a fairer deal. They now make up 40 per cent of universities'
intake and are arguably more important to higher education and the economy than at any time in the past. They deserve a proper review, rather than piecemeal initiatives that seem designed to placate critics at the lowest possible cost. The omens are not promising in the run-up to an avowedly tight spending review, but part-time higher education satisfies many of the Chancellor's criteria for investment. As UUK argues, this neglected group must not be forgotten when top-up fees are reconsidered in 2009, but nor should it have to wait until then.