Writing in the Office for Fair Access’s annual report for 2012-13, published on 3 July, Professor Ebdon, director of fair access, says he is “very concerned” by a 40 per cent decline in the numbers of students starting part-time courses since 2010, as such students tend to come from poorer backgrounds.
“If higher education is truly to meet the needs of all those with the talent to benefit, it must be flexible enough to support those who choose to study later in life, whether part-time or full-time, as well as those who go straight to university from school,” says Professor Ebdon, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire.
He also notes there was 7.1 per cent fall in mature students starting university in 2012-13 compared to the previous year.
“We need more mature students to meet the demand for graduates in the economy, so it’s vital that we understand what has caused the drop and what can be done about it,” Professor Ebdon adds.
He welcomes Universities UK’s review of part-time and mature higher education, which is due to report in October.
Sir Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, agreed that the fall in part-time study was “deeply worrying”.
In his report, Professor Ebdon says the decline in part-time study may have been caused by a failure to explain the new student finance system, which allowed part-time students to access tuition fee loans for the first time this year.
However, University and College Union president Simon Renton disagreed.
“Put simply, since the rise in tuition fees, higher education has become a luxury many older students can’t afford,” he said.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president (higher education) at the National Union of Students, said the government must “do more to promote the pat-time loans scheme and work to ensure universities keep and promote their part-time provision”.
Michael Gunn, chair of Million+, which represents post-1992 universities, and vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said Offa was right to highlight the fall in older students because one in three students now start university when they are over 21.
“There is a real risk of a downward spiral that will depress social mobility and lead to skills shortages in the long-term,” he said.
“Ministers should shift the focus, restore the part-time premium and fund and support a high profile campaign to show that university is not just for younger people,” he added.