Why does the Government continue to treat part-timers unfairly and ignore their struggles? asks Ivor Crewe
Part-time students are the Cinderellas of the higher education sector, and it is about time they were invited to the ball. They got barely a mention in the 2003 White Paper, and they were sidelined by the Higher Education Bill. Yet part-timers account for 41 per cent of all higher education students in England and Wales. Between 1994-95 and 2002-03, their number grew by 75 per cent. They make up more than half the student body at 11 universities.
Aside from sheer numbers, there are plenty of reasons why we should care much more about part-timers.
Part-time study creates opportunities for people who would otherwise never be in a position to consider higher education. It is critical for widening participation and for enabling lifelong learning. It is also increasingly important for the functioning of an economy based on rapidly changing knowledge and technologies, which needs workers who can update their skills. It is the mode of study of the future.
So far, so uncontroversial. The Government repeatedly acknowledges the importance of part-time higher education, so why my concern?
Three major problems beset part-time higher education.
First, universities are underfunded for it: the government contribution does not reflect the true cost of provision.
Second, part-time students do not receive the same level of support that their full-time counterparts get, despite recent small improvements. The discrimination against formal part-timers seems all the more unfair given the common practice among formal full-time students of taking part-time jobs during the academic term.
Finally, the lack of robust, systematic data about part-timers makes it difficult to develop coherent policy in this area.
Because the Higher Education Bill ignored part-time students, they will continue to have to pay their tuition fees upfront, unlike their full-time classmates, who from 2006 may defer payment until after graduation.
Moreover, after 2006, full-time undergraduates will have to repay their fees only when their earnings exceed £15,000 a year and the real rate of interest will be set at zero.
The more favourable terms of payment for full-time students will allow universities to charge them higher fees, up to £3,000 - a rise of 30 per cent per student over the combined tuition fee plus government grant that universities receive now.
Knowing that part-time students must pay upfront without access to loans on the same generous terms, universities will feel unable to raise their fees, even though the cost of provision is the same, if not higher.
So, unless the Government takes action, the provision of part-time higher education will become less attractive to cash-strapped institutions, just when we ought to be making the most of the strengths of this form of education.
But to convince ministers that the graduate contribution scheme should be extended to part-time students, we need to answer some important questions.
Who are the part-timers? What are their financial circumstances? Where and what do they study? Why do they choose to study part time, and how commonly do employers pay part-time students' fees? We simply do not have answers to these obvious questions.
But what is clear is that there is no such thing as a "typical" part-time student. They vary from members of the retired professional classes studying arts courses as a hobby to people in mid-career wishing to update their work skills; from non-graduate mothers seeking qualifications after a long career break to ambitious young executives taking an MBA.
For many people, part-time higher education is their first experience of post-compulsory education; for others it is a second degree. Moreover, there is a genuine thirst for knowledge in parts of the population.
Motivation, circumstances and needs vary enormously.
Universities UK has commissioned a major piece of research to answer some of the big questions that policymakers have stumbled on in the past. We shall present the Government with comprehensive evidence for making better policy.
We need the next government to think seriously about how to address these issues, and the solutions must work for all institutions. Given the number of students involved and the importance of part-time study for the future prosperity of the UK, it is essential that we get this right and target scarce resources at those who need them most.
Ivor Crewe is the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Essex University.