The "arbitrary" funding divide between full-time and part-time students must end, a cross-party committee of MPs has demanded, Rebecca Attwood writes.
In a new report, the Education and Skills Committee calls for the Government to review the discrepancy between part-time and full-time students "as a matter of urgency".
Part-time students make up about 40 per cent of higher education students, but in England they do not have access to deferred loans for tuition fees, which all full-time students do, and have to pay their fees upfront.
Many do not qualify for support because they study at less than 50 per cent of the level of the full-time course, or already have a higher education qualification.
The MPs say the distinction between full-time and part-time is "so blurred as to be no longer sustainable" and that all students should be treated as a single group with a variety of needs.
Universities with large numbers of part-time students say that they lose out financially under the current funding arrangements.
David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, University of London, the capital's specialist provider of part-time, evening higher education, told the committee that institutions with part-time students "get on average 50 per cent of the resource in terms of fees that they would get if they had the same level of full-time students". He added that Birkbeck was running with a deficit of just under £1 million because of this.
In an interview with The Times Higher , he said the issue was now more pressing than ever in the light of the Government's commitment to Lord Leitch's targets for ensuring that at least 40 per cent of the UK workforce have higher-level qualifications by 2020.
Professor Latchman said: "The bottom line is: how can we have an agenda that is absolutely dependent on people studying while they are in work and yet we have a system that does not help you to do that? That's the fundamental paradox." The Government would need to improve support for part-time students if it wanted all universities to deliver the Leitch agenda, he said.
Lord Dearing, author of the influential 1997 review of higher education, also called attention to the issue in a speech in June.
He said that his committee's conclusion that a student support system should underpin lifelong learning by making choices between full-time and part-time study "financially neutral" had still not been fully adopted, ten years on from its report.
A spokesman for Universities UK said the report's findings chimed with research it had issued last year, which warned of a decline in part-time study.
But Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education, said the Government had "substantially" increased support for part-time students.
"In recent years, there have been major increases in financial support for part-timers, both in terms of the grants paid directly to them and through the Access to Learning Fund administered by institutions," Mr Rammell said.