A new report calls for fairer funding for part-time students, but concedes that a mirror image of support for full-time students could be "risky" and actually cut enrolment.
The Supply of Part-Time Higher Education in the UK, published on 30 September by Universities UK, finds high levels of regional variation in part-time study and argues that government leadership and funding incentives are needed to expand provision.
Supporters of part-time study say such provision is essential to widen access to higher education for low- income groups and meet the needs of employers by allowing people to develop their skills while working.
The report, based on case studies, concludes it is "essential" that Lord Browne's review of student fees and funding, due to report in two weeks, considers a "fairer and more generous" system for part-time students.
The two main options identified are raising eligibility thresholds for fee and course grants for part-time students in line with any increase in tuition fees, or the more "radical" path of mirroring the support system for full-time students with loans for tuition fees - and possibly maintenance loans and grants.
"Loans for tuition would allow universities to increase their fees to part-timers on a pro rata basis because students would no longer have to pay for their fees upfront," says the report, by Claire Callender and Anne Jamieson, researchers at Birkbeck, University of London, and Geoff Mason, senior research Fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
But the report notes the second option could have "unintended consequences, especially if full-time fees rise considerably".
A 2006 study for UUK found that the take-up of loans among part-time students is likely to be lower than among full-time students, the authors note. This could ultimately reduce part-time enrolments "and eventually mean that provision gets cut back", they add.
The current system allocates funding to universities on assumed income from part-time students rather than the fees paid. As many universities have been reluctant to increase part-time fees in line with full-time ones, this puts institutions with high numbers of part-timers at a "serious financial disadvantage", the report says.