Austerity partly to blame for part-time downturn, says report

Government austerity and the consequent falls in public sector employment are driving a decline in part-time study, a report released today concludes.

April 29, 2014

The new study from the Higher Education Funding Council for England tries to understand why part-time numbers have fallen so dramatically, particularly among undergraduates, since the recession.

Falling public sector employment since 2010, decreasing training budgets, and a more general rise in unemployment “appear to have taken their toll” on part-time study, the report says, because students tend to take part-time courses when in work.

But the report offers other explanations for the fall as well. In 2008, the government cut teaching grant for students taking courses that were of a lower or equivalent level to qualifications they already possessed (the ELQ rule).

Also, from 2012-13, undergraduate teaching grant for all but high-cost subjects (such as lab based sciences) has been progressively removed leading to much higher tuition fees for part-time courses.

There has also been a sharp fall in part-time entrants with financial backing from their employers, the report points out.

“The recent economic recession and government policy decisions – some directly and some not directly related to higher education – have created a situation where part-time study has been under pressure from all sides,” says Pressure from all sides: Economic and policy influences on part-time higher education.

“Rises in unemployment – particularly public sector employment – appear to have taken their toll. The latter was exacerbated by the austerity measures imposed on the public sector,” it adds.

But Claire Callender, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, said: “We have no sense from this report which are the most important changes driving the decline in part-time student numbers, and as result, what policy responses are needed to stem the decline.”

Before the funding changes of 2012-13, around a fifth of part-time undergraduate students qualified for grants and most of these paid no fees at all, she said.

But these grants were abolished for new entrants after 2012-13. Instead they can now take out loans, but to pay far higher fees, Professor Callender said.

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Reader's comments (3)

Levels 3/4/5 vocational courses well supported in past by employers, were popular in the era of very low fees and State tertiary education subsidy. So far the alternative emerging apprenticeships programme containing part time study components, has not yet demonstrated much take up, even with reasonable amounts of State financial support, although encouragingly employers are at least helping develop the new 'trailblazer' Apprenticeship Standards, particularly for level 3 technician grade. Like apparently similar weak joint industry/university research collaboration many British companies, especially SMEs, seem reluctant or unable to properly invest enough resources in skills and technology improvements and new developments.
Perhaps the predominance so far, of the development of level 3 Advanced (technician) trailblazers Standards, which generally do not carry FE college fees, is an early indicator of where employers are likely to be most interested in the scheme. The prospects for Higher Apprenticeships seemingly look less attractive for employers due to high HE course fees, which participating trainees would presumably not take on themselves. Nevertheless may be there is potential for inclusion of the level 8 Doctoral Training Centres programme, that currently attracts few UK fee paying students, but has the potential to transform the generally weak R&D capabilities of SMEs in particular.
Some Professional Institutes have or are now developing an Advanced level apprenticeship route, but mainly for level 3 technicians. However beyond this grade, full/chartered membership for most Professional Institutes generally requires a traditional level 6 Bachelor degree (fees lately paid by the student), thereafter topped up with a sponsored training agreement or NVQs, hence the established preference of employers for this route. For the alternative Higher Apprenticeship (trailblazers) to prevail presumably the high costs would have to be heavily subsidised somehow, as both students and emlpoyer were traditionally acustomed to a low fees for apprentiships (mostly with the FE sector) .

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