Give part-timers full support

February 6, 2004

Part-time students play a crucial role in our economy and should be funded accordingly, writes David Latchman

More than 40 per cent of students in higher education study part time, and it is generally agreed that these students make a considerable contribution to widening participation, lifelong learning and economic prosperity.

It is surprising, therefore, that in the discussions concerning the enhanced resourcing of universities by increasing fees for full-time students, very little attention has been paid to part-time students and the universities that teach them.

The few changes that have been announced are not as helpful as they might appear. For example, the proposal to replace discretionary fee waivers with guaranteed fee support for part-time students with low incomes is capped at a maximum of 50 per cent of the present full-time fee, so that students whose fees are greater than this will face a shortfall. Similarly, the recent announcement by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of a 10 per cent premium in institutions' grants for part-time students will not provide increased funds. Rather, it is intended to compensate for another change, in which Hefce will increase the amount that it deducts from each institution's grant for the income each is assumed to receive in part-time student fees.

More seriously, last year's Hefce study indicated that an institution's costs for part-time students were up to 44 per cent greater than those for their full-time equivalents. Such cost problems are particularly acute for institutions with an overwhelmingly part-time student body, where cross-subsidy is not possible.

Interestingly, Hefce pays a 10 per cent premium to institutions that teach a small number of disciplines only because they cannot cross-subsidise between subjects. Yet no such subsidy is paid to solely part-time institutions.

Such institutions will not receive any income from the introduction of full-time student fees. These fees will allow other universities to enhance their facilities and recruit high-quality staff, which will benefit all students. It could be argued that all institutions have the option to increase their part-time fees, but these are already set by market forces and increasing them further could result in decreased recruitment.

Potentially, universities with significant full-time and part-time provision could use their full-time student-fee income to subsidise part-time study, thereby increasing their market share.

Some of these issues could be dealt with by the funding system providing better support for institutions with part-time students, and particularly those that specialise in this area. But the Hefce system is designed to support institutions with full-time students and is incapable of responding appropriately to the flexibility inherent in part-time study. For example, an institution will not be funded for a part-time student who undertakes four course units in a year, but subsequently postpones one until the next year of study, due to family or work commitments.

Similarly, a prospective student who wishes to dip a toe into the water of higher education by taking a short course will not be funded unless there is an end-of-course assessment. Yet such assessments are precisely what might deter students who are intimidated by the prospect of higher education.

Institutions are therefore faced with the prospect of either insisting on assessment or charging £130 for an assessed course and £830 for the same course without assessment. Neither option is ideal in terms of getting a disadvantaged student into lifelong learning.

With so many students studying part time, it is not acceptable for those students and the institutions that teach them to be funded as an add-on to a system that was devised for full-time students. If the government and Hefce are serious about the importance of part-time study, they should develop a funding system that supports it.

David S. Latchman is master of Birkbeck College, University of London.

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