On balance, it's time for parity - no matter how it may move things

Financial discrimination against part-time students must end even if we can't say how it will affect gender imbalance, argues Tom Schuller

December 31, 2009

Now that Lord Browne has called for evidence for his review of university funding, I would urge him as a priority to examine the crucial - but still neglected - role of part-time higher education.

In addressing the discrimination against part-time students in terms of their financial support, Lord Browne will also have to grapple with an unpredictable and controversial gender dimension.

The extent to which women already outnumber men in higher education is remarkable. At every level and in almost every subject - mathematics and engineering being the main exceptions - women are in the majority. Of the 2.36 million total university enrolments in 2006-07, 1.35 million were women and 1.11 million were men.

This change, which has taken place steadily over the past 10 to 15 years, marks a major social transformation, but it has been the subject of surprisingly little public analysis.

One factor for the change in gender make-up is the incorporation into higher education of disciplines such as nursing, an area that was previously outside the academy and has historically been dominated by women. Another factor is the decline of discrimination in the classroom, as girls' academic aspirations are better recognised.

But within this overall picture there is another major divergence: the difference between men and women in relation to full- and part-time study. This affects the whole picture of participation in adult learning, which Sir David Watson and I highlight in Learning through Life, the recent report produced as a result of the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning.

We can see very clearly that the closer any form of learning is to traditional full-time study, the better men do. According to Universities UK's 2009 report, Patterns of Higher Education Institutions in the UK, among full-time postgraduate students, men almost manage to achieve parity, with 49.4 per cent of enrolments. After that, their share slips steadily downwards. On full-time undergraduate courses, men make up 45.6 per cent of the student body. For part-time postgraduates, the figure is 44.5 per cent. For part-time first degrees it is just under 40 per cent, and for other part-time undergraduate qualifications it drops to 34.6 per cent - getting on towards two women for every man.

The pattern could not be clearer.

The gap between men and women has been there for some time, although it has widened over the past ten years. But the pace of divergence has been markedly stronger in part-time provision - the gap between male and female enrolments was 6 percentage points for full-time study a decade ago and is now 10 points; for part-timers, it was 8 points and is now 22 points.

This is a shift of major proportions. It adds a powerful gender dimension to the heavy discrimination against part-time students. One of our main recommendations in Learning through Life is for mode-free funding: funding formulae for students and for institutions that treat part-timers on the same basis as full-timers. (We also argue for the eventual abolition of the distinction between full- and part-time study.) This is an essential move if we want a genuine system of lifelong learning.

If the balance of support changed between full- and part-time study, what would that do to the gender distribution of enrolments between the two modes? We cannot tell for sure. It could be that men would still favour full-time study, continuing a long historic pattern whereby women are more likely to combine different activities.

Alternatively, men may follow the money, and a funding system that is equitable for full-timers and part-timers may do something to change the strong trend described above.

Women lose out under the current system, which discriminates against part-timers. Under a mode-free regime, they may benefit from the new support to increase their participation even further.

These are significant issues. I would argue that gender differences are important only in so far as they reflect structural disadvantage (experienced for so long by women in education). The case for equal support for part-timers is independent of this.

In short, the impact of mode-free funding on gender patterns is unpredictable. What is certain is that if we are to make a reality of the rhetoric on lifelong learning, the major growth - in higher education as elsewhere - will be in part-time study.

We should press ahead now with the shift to mode-free funding and get ready for some interesting discussion when we can see what this does to male and female participation rates.

Tom Schuller is an associate director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and the co-author, with Sir David Watson, of Learning through Life.

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