The decline in the number of part-time students in the UK university sector is a “tragedy” for individuals, families and society, according to the new vice-chancellor of the Open University.
Peter Horrocks will use his first speech to call on the next government to put part-time study at the “front and centre” of the higher education agenda.
Mr Horrocks, previously the director of the BBC World Service, will point to statistics which show a dramatic decline in the number of students studying part time.
“You don’t need me to tell you that the part-time sector is facing a challenging time – the figures speak for themselves,” Mr Horrocks, who joined the OU at the beginning of April and will take up the vice-chancellor post formally on 5 May, is expected to say.
“Last year, there were almost 370,000 people studying for an undergraduate degree on a part-time basis in the UK. Five years ago, there were more than 580,000.”
He will describe this 37 per cent decline as 200,000 “life opportunities that have been lost”. “I think each of those lost opportunities is a tragedy,” he will say. “A tragedy for those individual lives, a tragedy for their families, but also a tragedy for our wider society and economy.”
The issue is a particularly sensitive one for the OU, which has lost more than a quarter of its total student numbers over the past five years.
The number fell from about 260,000 in 2009-10 to just over 187,000 in 2013-14.
In terms of full-time equivalent enrolment, the decline was 10,000 over the five years to about 73,500 last year.
The institution posted a deficit of £16.9 million in the year to July 2014, with its most recent accounts stating that the “most significant driver” of the fall in income was “the reduction in student numbers…largely as a result of the funding changes in England that have impacted in the whole part-time sector.” All the OU’s students study part-time.
“We need to make sure we do more than just get part-time noticed,” Mr Horrocks will tell Open University employees, urging both them and the institution’s alumni to “tell friends, family and anyone of influence about the frightening fall in part-time numbers” and to “fight for part-time education”.
“Part-time higher education is just too valuable – to society, to the economy and to those citizens who should have equal access to that opportunity to study,” he will say. “We need to fight to make sure that people continue to have that opportunity; we need to make sure we do more than just get part-time noticed – we need it to be cherished and valued, and most importantly, sustained.”
Mr Horrocks will make the remarks at an internal university event on 23 April, marking the 46th anniversary of the OU receiving its royal charter.