Part-time study has declined far more in England than in other parts of the UK because of damaging policies introduced there but not in the devolved nations, a new report suggests.
Between 2008 and 2012, part-time entrants in England plummeted by 42 per cent, yet in Northern Ireland, where the government has focused on reskilling workers and has not changed part-time funding arrangements, the intake grew by 16 per cent.
The findings of the Higher Education Funding Council for England report show how devolution has led to contrasting fortunes for part-time higher education in different parts of the UK.
Pressure from all sides: Economic and policy influences on part-time higher education highlights that although part-time entrant numbers have fallen in Scotland (23 per cent) and Wales (12 per cent), the collapse in England has been much greater.
This is despite the fact that England has recovered from the recession faster and has had a bigger increase in the population eligible for part-time study than the devolved nations. England alone cut teaching grant for students taking equivalent or lower level qualifications in 2008-09 (the so-called ELQ rule) the study, released on 29 April, points out.
In addition, tuition fees were raised for English-domiciled students in 2012-13, although in the same year loans were introduced for part-time students not taking an ELQ programme.
On the other hand, Northern Ireland has not changed funding for part-time courses since 2008 and “displays the most supportive policy conditions for part-time [study] in recent years”, meaning it “bucks the trend of part-time declines”, the report says, although growth has been from a low base.
David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, University of London, which specialises in part-time study, said that the Welsh government had learned from the drop in part-time study in England and retained more central funding for part-time programmes to keep tuition fees down. “That seems to be working well in Wales and we urge the English government to do the same,” he said.
The report looks at the fate of part-time learning since the start of the economic crash in other countries. While the drop in part-time enrolment from 2010-11 to 2011-12 in the UK was not as bad as in Ireland, Poland or China, in other countries such as Canada, the US, Australia, Germany and Belgium, part-time student numbers had actually grown, the report shows.
A fall in part-time study following economic weakness and unemployment – because people are less able to afford to study – “does not seem to be inevitable”, it says.
Yet other data show that the economy, as well as policy, is driving the fall in part-time learning. A “strong correlation” exists between unemployment in English regions and falls in undergraduate part-time entrants in 2011-12, the report found.
In the North East, where unemployment was close to 8 per cent, part-time entrants fell by more than 50 per cent. But in the South East, with an unemployment rate of 3 per cent, the fall was only about half that figure.