Part-time paradox

April 21, 1995

The voices of part-time students are rarely heard. Occasionally the national annual conference of the National Union of Students hears about part-timers, usually - along with further education and mature students - in terms of poverty.

At the annual conference of the Higher Education Funding Council for England last week they were also referred to - as a "paradox". The paradox is that their numbers are going up. But this demand, sadly, is not a cause for celebration, since the cash part-timers bring in does not cover the cost of teaching them. The funding council has made it clear that unless there is a compensating increase in fees charged for part-timers, universities will lose out even more than they are doing already.

Universities, unsurprisingly, are reluctant to admit that they will be putting up fees. Instead, there are vague statements about balancing access against resourcing. The Open University is suitably vague on the subject - for an institution devoted to widening access, putting up fees as a way of bringing down demand for courses is not a long-term answer. Part-time students are rarely involved in the life of their institution in the way that full-time students are. They have other commitments - families, jobs, financial pressures - that stop them from being as vocal.

In the meantime their interests are being neglected. It has been obvious for a long time that a new system of financing higher education in this country is needed, to share the burden between part-time students who pay their own fees, and full-time students who do not. With the move towards modularisation and credit-based learning systems, the division between full-timers and part-timers is breaking down. Indeed, the whole thrust of a modular system is to make higher education more flexible, particularly for those unable to do a traditional three-year degree.

While part-timers continue to pay fees and apply to university, the Government is unlikely to want to cut off this source of revenue. But they may find that the voices of these students will no longer stay quiet. After all, consumers paying a lot of a money for a particular product do not like being short-changed.

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