Part of the equation

December 8, 1995

Will the Budget revive demands to rethink higher education funding? Ann Hanson, David Smith and Ian Pyper want a model based on part-time students' needs.

Earlier in the year it looked as though The THES was about to move the debate about part-time study to centre stage. As members of the Association for Part-time Higher Education. we waited with bated breath. "The voices of part-time students are rarely heard," stated the editorial of April 21. But since then we have watched part-time provision move back into the wings.

While there is much talk about the breaking down of distinctions between full and part-time study, this is often based on long-held and outmoded assumptions which are in danger of being reinforced rather than eroded. The Higher Education Funding Council for England illustrated the point by making "it clear that unless there is a compensating increase in fees charged to part-timers, universities will lose even more than they do already" (The THES, April 21). This ghetto perception of part-time students ignores some key facts. Let us challenge some assumptions.

Part-time students are different because they work and study at the same time. Grants for full-time students were further reduced this September. Only for the most affluent student is full-time education now a realistic option. "Universities nationwide are being inundated with requests for term-time jobs by students unable to manage on their grants" (The Times, May 5). Even so, most students are now expected to graduate with a debt of Pounds 5,000.

Part-time students are different because they are mature students. This is discounted by the Department for Education and Employment's own take up rates for higher education, which it has recently revised. The department now calculates that the percentage of mature students in full-time higher education is now 40 per cent.

Part-time students are different because they study customised courses at odd times. There are still some institutions, such as the Open University and Birkbeck, which specialise in part-time students, but the rush of universities into modularisation means that most part-time students in universities now study alongside their full-time colleagues. Indeed, one of the great advantages of modularisation is that it allows students to control how rapidly they progress as they pass between full-time and part-time study.

So what are the differences between part-time and full-time study? We suggest that there are only three: whether or not the student qualifies for grant-aid and payment of fees by local authorities; the amount the universities charge in fees; and the amount per student received by the institution from the funding council. These distinctions are all introduced artificially by the system of funding itself.

Both the National Union of Students and seemingly, the Labour party (THES, April 7), appear to agree that the current system of funding higher education is unsustainable. Why not, therefore, make the status of studying for a degree or diploma rather than the mode of study the qualification for financial assistance?

The funding council has suggested that part-time fees are too low. Fees are, of course, in part, market driven so that some premium fees, for MBAs for example, are higher. However, the main reason why the council finds that part-time fees are too low is the result of its own allocation policies to universities. Were it to fund universities pro-rata on a credit and accumulation basis (ie, by module credit points studied) at a realistic level, all students would be included in the overall maximum allowed student numbers (MASN), irrespective of mode of study.

Indeed the concept of MASN would have to be replaced by that of funded student credits (FSC). FSCs would be credit based and not related to mode of study and would be intended to remove the need for separate tuition fees which, in the case of full-time local education authority-supported students, are simply a paper transfer of public funds.

Institutions would be allocated a quota of funded credits which they could distribute among their programmes. While they would have a free hand in this, they would be aware that their quota took account of the funding council's evaluation of teaching quality and the likely level of demand in the various subject areas covered by their programme. A student who had been awarded a quota place would be free to study on either a full or part-time basis, although maintenance grants from LEAs and student loans would only be available to those funded students taking undergraduate modules with a credit value of at least 120 points per year.

Until recently most institutions had no idea how expensive their part-time degrees were, yet they ran them anyway, as a community service. It is ironic that better financial control and an inflexible funding mechanism may now kill these degrees off.

Given that the majority of part-time and full-time students are failed by the funding system, work as well as study, and study the same modules in each others' company, why not accept that both deserve equal treatment from the funding system? Accept, in other words, that the funding system should support all students studying for a recognised degree and diploma irrespective of the mode of study.

Of course, it may well be that no government will be prepared to fund all students at the same level. Nevertheless, once this were established, the real debate about funding the national production of graduates could begin. This funding might be via free fees and means-tested grants, free fees and loans, even vouchers.

In such a scenario, institutions would be free to exceed their FSCs provided that the fees charged for additional places at least covered marginal costs. In practice this would mean that additional non-funded places would be directed towards part-time provision in areas of high market demand. At postgraduate level, the same funding principles would apply to fees. The only difference would be that the maintenance element would be discretionary and targeted.

This change in the funding mechanism introduces the real paradox for providers. Modularisation and credit transfer are supposed to remove rigid distinctions between modes of study. In the past, it was normal for part-time courses to be clearly differentiated from those offered to full-timers. Some part-time programmes had less tutorial and seminar time to support lectures. The part-time student was likely to emerge with an ordinary degree while the full-timer automatically progressed to honours. Support services such as personal tutors, studies advisers, counselling and careers advice tended to be directed to the full-time student.

Modularisation has blurred some of the distinction between modes but has not really addressed the marginalisation of part-time students. In some instances, it has led to a deterioration in provision for part-time students. Some common teaching of full and part-time students has been timetabled to the disadvantage of the latter. And syllabuses, course regulations and decisions on standard module sizes have been based on common practice for the full-time majority.

The implicit assumption is that part-timers can be "fitted-in" around full-time provision. In reality, the opposite is closer to the truth. If the starting point of programme design were to be the part-time student who is combining studies with paid employment and family commitments, it is more likely that the results will not seriously disadvantage the full-timer.

Unless part-time students are treated as the norm rather than the exception, removing formal distinctions between the modes of study could result in the non-traditional part-time student being pushed even further towards the margins of higher education.

Only the National Union of Students recognises the realities of future funding and is willing to engage in debate. Neither the present Government nor the Labour party seem prepared to take the political risks, and so the funding bodies chip away in a piecemeal and seemingly arbitrary fashion.

But the profile of self-funding students is changing and they may ultimately find real strength in numbers. Their power at the ballot box may make their voices heard, if only they can overcome a further paradox: their stoical acceptance of the disadvantages of gaining of a qualification through part-time study.

Ann Hanson is staff tutor in education, Open University, David Smith is campus director of studies, Middlesex University, and Ian Pyper is course director of the part-time masters degree course in human resources, University of Ulster.

Letters for publication in The THES should arrive by Tuesday morning. Letters should be double-spaced, written on one side of the paper and as short as possible. The editor reserves the right to amend them. Letters may be sent to Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY, faxed on 0171 782 3300 or email Letters published in The THES will, along with the rest of the publication, be stored electronically and republished in derivative versions of The THES on computer networks and elsewhere.

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