Forgotten, ignored and stuck "at the bottom of the food chain", they are the Cinderellas of the higher education sector.
Part-time students make up almost 40 per cent of the UK's student population and more than half a million of them study in England's universities.
But, despite their numbers, those who care about the subject have argued for many years that part-time undergraduates get a raw deal, often suffering from inadequate financial support and a lack of attention to their needs.
Until recently, the government had shown little interest in part-time students. They were left on the sidelines: Labour's 2003 White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, for example, gives them relatively little attention.
This does not mean that there have not been repeated attempts to bring them to the government's notice.
In 2007, MPs on the Education and Skills Committee called for the government to review the position of part-time students "as a matter of urgency".
In the same year, Lord Dearing, who led the influential 1997 review of higher education, expressed disappointment that his committee's proposal for a student support system that would underpin lifelong learning by making choices between full-time and part-time study "financially neutral" had not been adopted a decade on.
The response from the government grew familiar: Labour had "substantially" increased support for part-time students since coming to power, and many part-time students had financial support towards the cost of their education from their employers.
It is true that before 1997 part-time students were ineligible for any government-funded financial support whatsoever.
When Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street, Labour introduced a series of reforms designed to address this, and it enacted other changes between 2003 and 2006.
The resulting system today potentially entitles students to a means-tested fee grant, to help with tuition fees, of up to £1,230, and a means-tested course grant, to help with study costs such as books, materials and travel, of up to £265.
Unlike full-time students, part-time students have no access to loans, but the Labour government ploughed more money into the Access to Learning Fund, a discretionary hardship fund administered by universities.
Although there have been no more recent modifications in financial support arrangements, the rhetoric has changed.
Two warnings - one about the economic imperative to "upskill" the nation, and the other a predicted downturn in the number of 18-year-olds - have put part-time study on the political agenda.
In 2006, the Leitch review of skills called for four out of 10 adults to have a higher education qualification by 2020, a target that was to be met via flexible work-based courses with substantial input from employers.
Without a significant increase in skills, the UK would be condemned to "a lingering decline in competitiveness, diminishing economic growth and a bleaker future for all", Lord Leitch warned.
Two years later, a report for Universities UK, The Future Size and Shape of the HE Sector in the UK, predicted that the number of full-time students would fall by 70,000 by 2020.
This led to calls for universities to "seize new markets", including older, part-time and work-based learners.
These messages were taken seriously by the Labour government. Last autumn, its framework document for the future of the sector, Higher Ambitions, signalled a significant shift in thinking, putting part-time students at the centre of the government's plans for higher education.
Flexible, part-time and work-based provision was the future of university expansion, the sector was told.
"The next phase of expansion in higher education will hinge on providing opportunities for different types of people to study in a wider range of ways than in the past," the framework said.
"The focus will therefore be on a greater diversity of models of learning: part-time, work-based, foundation degrees and studying while at home."
The document also argued that increasing part-time student numbers was key to widening participation.
But new research - the biggest study of part-time students to date - suggests that the gap between the rhetoric and the reality is considerable.
Futuretrack: Part-Time Students was funded by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (Hecsu) and the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Claire Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck, University of London, and researchers from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, surveyed a representative sample of almost 4,000 UK students who were studying for a first degree, a foundation degree or a higher national certificate in 2008.
Results from the first half of the longitudinal study, which are published today, give the best information to date on part-time students - a group that has so far been the subject of little study.
The research, which examines issues ranging from their motivations for study to their finances, shows that part-time students are a diverse group. The vast majority are mature students - only 9 per cent are under the age of 22 when they start their course - and about 64 per cent are female.
Accordingly, they have many commitments outside their studies: the Hecsu data reveal that two-thirds of students have family responsibilities and about two in five have children.
Combining paid work with part-time study is the norm - few part-time students work only part-time. About 80 per cent are in employment, mostly full-time and often in the public sector.
The qualifications they are pursuing are very different from those in full-time study.
While 89 per cent of full-time undergraduates are aiming for a first degree, only 36 per cent of part-time students are.
In fact, by far the biggest group are pursuing other qualifications, including professional qualifications, higher education certificates and short courses.
Moreover, many are "widening participation" students, coming from low-income families. The DIUS-commissioned Student Income and Expenditure Survey 2007-08 shows that 29 per cent of part-time students come from the "routine or manual" socio-economic group and that their average household income is about £20,000.
Part-time students are also very unevenly distributed throughout the sector.
The Futuretrack study asks students why they chose part-time study over a full-time course. For the vast majority (80 per cent), it is because they cannot afford to quit work.
A similar proportion value the greater flexibility of part-time study and the ability to fit studies around work.
For most part-time students, the motivation for studying is to fulfil a career ambition.
An overwhelming 89 per cent say the decision to study is related to their career objectives, while just over half (55 per cent) say their course is related to their current occupation.
Meanwhile, more than half think that they need a higher education qualification to get ahead, and 56 per cent that their existing qualifications are inadequate to meet their career ambitions.
Many (47 per cent) say they want to do something "useful" or "different" with their lives. Interestingly, almost half of female students with a child under the age of 11 say they first started to think about taking their courses because they wanted to be a role model for their children, or wanted to help with their children's education.
Futuretrack also examines student finance. Grants for part-time students are means-tested; however, financial need is a secondary concern for eligibility. Part-time students seeking financial assistance face two preliminary hurdles.
First, under the "ELQ rule", those studying for a qualification that is equivalent to or lower than their entry qualification are automatically excluded.
Second, any student who is studying for less than 50 per cent of a full-time course is not entitled to financial support.
Callender's research shows that this automatically excludes a very high proportion of students from government help.
The ELQ rule disqualifies about 39 per cent. Together, the two rules work to bar nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of part-time students in England from any government aid - even though they may not have two pennies to rub together.
Yet those taking on fewer hours of study are also likely to be those with demanding work and family responsibilities, and about a quarter of them have low entry qualifications.
"Those who are studying less than 50 per cent are very often the focus of widening participation - those who are uncertain about entering higher education and are taking 'taster' courses, and who have family commitments," Callender explains.
Finally, grants go only to those with low household incomes via a methodology that takes into account the student's own income, his or her partner's earnings and the number of dependent children (see box, page 39).
For fee grants, for example, only those earning less than £16,510 receive a full grant, and anyone earning more than £24,915 is ineligible. In contrast, full-time students are ineligible for grants if their family income is higher than £50,020.
The Hecsu study found that just 15 per cent of part-timers receive a fee grant, averaging £793, while only 20 per cent receive a course grant, averaging £242.
And the situation nationally may be even bleaker than that revealed by Futuretrack, according to the Labour government's response to a parliamentary question.
"It is estimated that about 10 per cent of part-time students are awarded a fee grant, and about 10 per cent are awarded a course grant," David Lammy, who was then higher education minister, told the Commons in March.
At the same time, under the current fee regime, 100 per cent of full-time students - irrespective of their family income - receive financial help because all are entitled to a loan for both their fees and their living costs. Fee loans cover all the fees full-time students have to pay.
It is a system of "phenomenal" inequality, Callender says.
For the lucky few part-time students who do receive government assistance, the Hecsu study shows that it rarely covers their costs. Of the 15 per cent who receive a fee grant, 43 per cent had tuition fee costs higher than the amount of their grant, with the shortfall averaging £576.
More than two-thirds of students (68 per cent) who received a course grant had course costs that exceeded the grant they received, with an average shortfall of £729.
"The state system does help to compensate for the absence of employer support and for market failure," the Hecsu report says. "However, government fee grants are frequently less generous than an employer's contribution to a student's fees."
The study found that 41 per cent of part-time students receive help from their employer.
A similar proportion pay some or all of their fees themselves, and a fifth gain support from a financial assistance scheme.
But employers are highly selective about the employees they choose to sponsor.
Those who are most likely to receive financial support from an employer are those who are least in need of help.
"If you are going to sponsor an employee, who are you going to pick? You are going to pick a 'winner'," said Callender, presenting her findings at a seminar, "At what cost? The impact of finance on access to HE", at the University of Westminster in April.
"The Hecsu study shows that they are white, they've already got a degree and they are already fairly senior with a medium to high income," she said.
"In fact, students with incomes over £25,000 are twice as likely to be sponsored by their employer as students with household incomes under £25,000. Those who miss out are exactly those students who are most in need of support - lone parents, those who are employed part-time, those with low- income households and those with low-level qualifications."
Nearly half of students had been given paid time off work to study, and one in six received financial help towards their other course costs.
Here too, however, the pattern is repeated.
"Those employees most likely to be given paid time off work and help with course-related costs were those most likely to have their fees paid in full by their employer," the Hecsu report says. "The employees most likely to receive this additional support were some of the most privileged in the labour market."
But the study also contains very positive messages for proponents of part-time study.
Despite the financial difficulties, part-time students experienced many benefits. Many had moved jobs, taken on more responsibility and experienced wider advantages, such as forming new friendships.
"Productivity and job satisfaction improved, they utilised the skills learned on their course in their jobs and were given more responsibilities at work reflecting their improved knowledge," the study says.
In total, 65 per cent of those in their final year of study felt that their ability to do their work had improved as a direct result of taking the course, and 58 per cent said they now had greater job satisfaction.
Many (41 per cent) had received a pay rise and 39 per cent a promotion as a result of their courses, while 31 per cent felt that their relationships with colleagues were better.
While part-time study causes financial strain for many students, they are not the only ones struggling. Part-time providers argue that they, too, find it difficult to make the sums work.
Callender's submission to Lord Browne's review of university fees and funding argues that institutional funding models also favour full-time undergraduates.
"There are now clear incentives for mixed-mode institutions to grow their full-time undergraduate provision and run down their part-time undergraduate programmes," her submission says.
To begin with, there is the issue of "body count". Providers say it costs them far more to educate four part-time students studying 25 per cent of a full-time course than it does to educate a single full-time student.
Together, four part-time students may receive the same number of teaching hours as the full-time student, but each needs access to the library and student-support services.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England recognises these extra costs through its part-time student premium. At the moment, universities receive about 15 per cent extra funding per student to make up the shortfall.
But Callender's submission to the fees review claims that this is inadequate. It cites a 2003 study by JM Consulting that found that, on a full-time equivalent basis, part-time students could cost an institution 44 per cent more. Hefce's funding calculations also assume that universities receive the same fee income pro rata from part-time students as they do from full-time students.
However, perhaps in recognition of the financial barriers part-time students face, only a minority of universities have raised their part-time fees to match full-time fees. The Hecsu study shows that the average part-time student tuition fee was £1,166, whereas the full-time fee in the same year was £3,070. This leaves a funding gap, because Hefce's calculations assume institutions charge a pro rata fee.
Then there is the issue of dropout rates, which are high among part-time students.
A study published by Hefce last year followed some 16,000 part-time students who entered university in 1996-97, and examined what had happened to them 11 years later.
Leaving aside students of The Open University, of those who declared that their aim was a bachelor's degree, 59 per cent left university without a qualification - not entirely surprising given the juggling act that part-time students have to perform.
Until recently, Hefce funding rules meant that universities received funding for a student only if they completed a year of study, although this system changed for 2009-10.
Some have even suggested that the Labour government's true motivation for pushing part-time study was that it placed less of a burden on the public purse.
All this may help to explain why the growth in part-time student numbers predicted by Labour and researchers does not appear to be taking place.
In a forthcoming paper, Callender says that part-time undergraduate enrolments in England are declining, once those studying at The Open University are excluded.
The number of part-time entrants pursuing a bachelor's degree peaked at 28,045 in 2002-03. By 2008-09, it had fallen to 24,770 - a drop of 12 per cent.
There has also been a steady slide in the number of students enrolling on other part-time courses.
The only increase is in the number of foundation degree students, which grew over the same period by 282 per cent. The net result is an overall drop of 8 per cent.
"The only reason why part-time student numbers in England aren't worse than they really are is because we've had a steady growth over the past 10 years in foundation degree students," Callender explains, pointing out that these figures are taken from cohorts not yet hit by the full impact of the ELQ rule.
"At a time when there is lots of 'mood music' about the importance of flexible provision, what we are seeing is an actual fall."
But things could be looking up. In March, the Browne review reported on the first batch of evidence it had received about the current system of university funding.
Its conclusions were the best news advocates of part-time study had heard in a very long time, Callender says.
The review panel found "a clear consensus" in the evidence submitted to it that the student finance system for part-time students was "not sufficient", and this was "especially" true when part-time support was compared with the support provided for full-time students.
It went on to say that this created "perverse incentives" both for students, who get more support by choosing full-time study, and institutions, which may be discouraged from providing innovative forms of part-time study.
"The sheer diversity of the part-time student population makes it more difficult to provide authoritative evidence of the knock-on impact of the 2006 reforms, but it is clear that the current system presents skewed incentives at a time when flexible and innovative provision is important," the panel found.
So what can be done to improve the system?
Last summer, Policy Exchange, a think-tank with links to the Conservative Party, proposed a model that it said would provide 60,000 more students with financial support. Its plan involved lowering the threshold for financial support from those studying more than 50 per cent of a full-time course to those studying more than 30 per cent. The model would also change the system to allow part-time students with a household income of up to £50,000 access to a partial fee grant.
In a recent joint submission to the Browne review, The Open University and Birkbeck argue that all students taking 30 credits or more at undergraduate level should be eligible for grants or loans to help pay their fees.
But some fear loans would give the green light to institutions to raise part-time fees, which are currently unregulated. Also, a mature student may be more reluctant to take on a loan debt than a 21-year-old with their entire career ahead of them.
At a time of great strain on the public purse, the issue of cost will never be far from the minds of the Browne review panel. Finding an answer will not be easy, but the incentives are clear.
Launching the Birkbeck-Open University proposals for the future of the system, David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, made a plea to the new government.
"It is time that part-time students are no longer the Cinderellas of the higher education sector," he said. "The Conservative-Liberal coalition can correct the mistakes and inequities of the past and finally deliver a higher education system that is fair for all."
'I was lucky to find a bursary that was tailor-made for my needs'
After taking a degree in design, Matthew Crowley, 29, set up his own business, a fashion label.
But when he found himself spending most of his time chasing bad debts, he knew that it was time for a rethink.
Crowley took on a job as a teaching assistant at Lauriston Primary School in Hackney. Thirteen of the 30 pupils in his class have special needs.
"I've always had a passion for English literature, but I didn't have any qualifications in it beyond GCSE level. I knew that if I wanted to carry on teaching English at any sort of level, I needed to get a better qualification," he says.
Crowley was accepted on to a part-time master's course in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, University of London.
"I applied for the course without knowing how I was going to fund it. When I was offered a place, I thought, 'How am I going to pay for it?' I'd convinced myself that I'd be able to manage somehow, but I didn't have any savings."
He began to investigate bursaries and discovered one from the law firm Denton Wilde Sapte.
"It specifically wants to give something back to people who are doing something to help their local community. I was pretty lucky to find a bursary that was tailor-made for my needs."
For several afternoons each week, Matthew uses literature to help two pupils with learning difficulties.
Together they are reading Treasure Island. Although it is challenging, the storyline has helped to get them excited about reading.
As well as helping him with his job - and he believes he has now found his "calling" - he says the course is improving his writing skills, and he aspires to be a writer one day.
"The course has been fantastic. I am really enjoying it. It has allowed me to engage my intellect after hiding it away for many years."
Crowley is one of 12 Birkbeck students to benefit from the £1,500 bursary.
He started his course just a month after he and his partner had their first child.
"It was such a weight off my mind. It really has been quite incredible. Apart from the money, it has also given me time to spend with my son. Otherwise, I think I would probably be working a second job now. I don't know how I'd have managed to do that and the course with a baby because I am knackered as it is," he laughs.
'Whatever money there is gets eaten up very quickly'
Trevor Dallimore-Wright, 51, suffers from bipolar disorder, and taking a course was the suggestion of his occupational therapist.
Having worked as an administrative officer in the Civil Service for more than 22 years, he receives a monthly pension of £540 after tax and incapacity benefit of about £260.
He lives in Wandsworth with his partner, who works. Their annual household income is not high, but it is not low enough to entitle Dallimore-Wright to any government grant to help him fund his part-time BA in history at Birkbeck, University of London.
His fees, which are paid upfront, are about £1,300 a year.
"I rely on the hardship funds that Birkbeck administers," he explains.
This year, the fund paid half his fees. Money is tight. "We don't have holidays or anything like that and I rarely buy books - I have to rely on the library."
Although help from the Disabled Student Allowance has allowed Dallimore-Wright to buy a computer, "whatever money there is gets eaten up very quickly".
"I'm fortunate that I have other benefits, such as a Freedom Pass, and, because I'm classed as disabled, I don't get hit by fines from my local library if I can't get my books back on time.
"Without little things like that, I would find it difficult. But you have to find these things out for yourself - there is no manual telling you how to save money."
He chose Birkbeck after passing the college one day by chance and picking up a prospectus.
Not having studied at university was something he had always "felt incomplete about".
"I'd always felt let down by the Catholic school system I went through in the West Country because I was written off as being 'word blind', which we now call dyslexia," he says.
At Birkbeck, he has a "wonderful" dyslexia tutor.
"I'm not saying I'm finding the course very easy, but it is helping the way that my mind works. All the things people are taught to do at 18 when they first go to university, I'm finally beginning to do now.
"I've fallen on my feet. I got into Birkbeck, and I've found that Birkbeck will support me financially - it has been extraordinarily helpful with everything. I've also had good advice from the students' union. For that, I would give Birkbeck a big number one. But there are others out there who I don't think have been so fortunate. The help available is not well advertised."
WHERE ARE THE INCENTIVES? HOW PART-TIMERS GET A POOR DEAL
A series of fictional "case study" students, put together as evidence to the Browne review, show how part-time students suffer under the current system
SCENARIO: Lone unemployed parent
Amanda is a lone parent, aged , with a four-year-old daughter. She lives in Hackney, east London, in a two-bedroom flat that she rents for £200 a week. She is studying a BSc in mathematics at a research-intensive London university
FULL-TIME: Amanda qualifies for maximum student support because she has no income. On top of a loan covering her fees, a maintenance loan and a bursary, she receives a Special Support Grant of £2,906, a Childcare Grant of £2,550, and a Parents' Learning Allowance of £1,508, bringing her student support to £17,436 a year. As a full-time student, she does not pay council tax. She also receives £548 in income support, housing benefits of £9,961 and Child Tax Credit of £2,801, bringing her total annual income to £32,593
PART-TIME*: Amanda receives a fee grant of £805, a course grant of £260 and receives a 25 per cent discount on her council tax bill. She also gets benefits totalling £14,615 and Child Tax Credit of £2,801, bringing her total income to £18,481. She has to pay £810 fees for her course
RESULT: Amanda is £14,111 worse off as a part-time student
SCENARIO: Single man in employment
Richard is a single man, aged 41, who lives in Coventry in a one-bedroom flat he rents for £100 a week. He works in his local supermarket as a supervisor and is studying for a BA in English at a new university
FULL-TIME: Richard works for 16 hours a week earning £7.50 an hour, so earns £6,183 a year after National Insurance. As earned income from employment is not taken into account when assessing entitlement to student support, he is awarded the maximum amount, totalling £9,947. He receives no benefits and his total income is £16,130
PART-TIME: Richard works for 36 hours a week on average during his studies as a part-time student, earning £11,612 a year. He receives a fee grant of £805 and a course grant of £260. He receives no benefits. Once his council tax bill is subtracted, he earns £11,818 a year, from which he must find £807 for tuition fees
RESULT: Richard is £4,311 worse off as a part-time student
SCENARIO: Couple in employment
Mandeep and Simon are a couple aged 30 and 29. They live in Liverpool in a two-bedroom house they rent for £150 a week. Simon works full-time in a local IT firm and earns £24,500 a year. Mandeep is studying for a BA in business studies at a new university. She also works part-time as an administrator for a local charity
FULL-TIME: Simon's wages after tax are £18,829 while Mandeep earns £5,812. She also receives student-support funding totalling £9,947. They receive no benefits. After council tax, their annual income is £33,676
PART-TIME: Simon and Mandeep's earnings come to £24,641 after tax. However, as Mandeep's combined household income before tax is above the upper threshold for student support, she doesn't receive any. As there are two liable adults in the property, they pay the full £1,350 in council tax and receive no benefits. Their total income is £23,291 after council tax and before paying tuition fees of £1,209
RESULT: Mandeep and Simon are £10,384 worse off as a result of Mandeep studying part-time
Note: *studying at 50 per cent of a full-time course
Source: Claire Callender and the National Union of Students.