Hefce must put its money where its mouth is when it comes to part-time students, says David Latchman
It is increasingly being recognised that the government's target of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010 has led simply to more middle-class young people entering university.
Although the emphasis is shifting to encouraging more working-class teenagers to apply, we are still overly concerned about our position in the league table of countries with different proportions of 18 to 30-year-olds going to university. We should take pride in the fact that we have the highest proportion in Europe of 25 to 65-year-olds participating in lifelong learning, which can promote a healthier lifestyle and enhance life satisfaction.
In past few months, those in positions of influence have become increasingly aware of the advantages of promoting learning among part-time and mature students. Despite the minimal mention of part-time students in the white paper, many of the responses have emphasised the importance of this group. Ministers have indicated their support for flexible provision in higher education, and Higher Education Funding Council for England chief executive Sir Howard Newby has endorsed "a lifelong experience" of learning.
The rhetoric is clear - part-time students, who combine study with work, and mature students deserve support. However, the reality is that the one-size-fits-all funding system needs to catch up with the rhetoric.
Although a 5 per cent premium is added for part-time students when the standard funding resource is calculated, this is inadequate to fund the costs of part-time provision.
The admission, enrolment and support services for part-time students have to be more carefully tailored than for the conventional full-time students.
Moreover, part-time recruitment does not benefit from the national infrastructure available for full-time student recruitment through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Retention issues are particularly complex for part-time mature students, whose participation in higher education is often affected by personal, family or work circumstances. Such part-time students may wish to interrupt their studies for family reasons and return several years later. The funding system does not recognise this, and considers such students as having dropped out.
Retention and recruitment problems render it particularly difficult for institutions of predominately part-time students to accurately predict student numbers, especially as they cannot take advantage of the annual clearing system to boost numbers and hence reach targets at the last minute.
As Hefce becomes more stringent about clawing back grants for institutions that fail to meet their targets, this problem is becoming increasingly acute for institutions with a large proportion of part-time students.
Indeed, although Hefce has indicated its desire to move away from an audit-based culture, such a culture is in danger of destroying institutions that do not fit the norm, at a time when their models of higher education are being supported by the political rhetoric.
This contrast can be seen, perhaps most acutely, in the faculty of continuing education at Birkbeck College, University of London. It offers subdegree level education involving short courses, certificates and diplomas. This type of education gives students a chance to get "a taste for higher education" to see what suits them and how to proceed further.
Provision of this sort was highlighted by Sir Howard in The THES earlier this year. Unfortunately, Hefce will fund these students only if they undergo a written assessment at the end of the course. However, the students we wish to attract are precisely those who may be most intimidated by such an assessment and thereby will be least likely to participate.
If the funding council continues not to fund such courses without assessment, we may be faced with the ludicrous situation of an assessed course costing £130, whereas the corresponding course without assessment would cost £830 - hardly the best way to encourage students to get a taste for higher education.
If the government and Hefce are serious about widening participation by enhancing part-time provision and encouraging mature students, then the funding system will have to become more flexible and recognise that the costs of such students are much greater and their numbers more difficult to predict than is the case for the conventional full-time 18-year-old.
David Latchman is master of Birkbeck College, University of London.