Part-time students ‘left behind’ by full-time ‘grade inflation’

Part-time learners in the UK much less likely to get a first or 2:1

October 28, 2019
Source: Getty

Part-time students in the UK are significantly less likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 than their full-time classmates, with the gap widening dramatically in recent years.

There has been widespread concern about grade inflation among full-time students, of whom 76 per cent got a “good” degree in 2017-18 – up from about half little more than two decades ago.

However, according to figures published by Advance HE, the proportion of part-time students leaving with the top two classifications has barely moved in the past few years.

Just under half of part-time undergraduates (47 per cent) aged 25 and under in the UK got a first or a 2:1 in 2017-18.

Students aged over 25, who made up more than two-thirds of those graduating from part-time courses last year, were more likely to gain the highest classifications (about 60 per cent in 2017-18) but there was still a gap of at least 10 percentage points compared with their full-time counterparts.

Perhaps most strikingly, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the overall share of part-time students getting a 2:1 or first in 2014-15 was 54 per cent, a share that had actually fallen to 53 per cent in 2017-18.

Claire Callender, professor of higher education studies at the UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck, University of London, said the figures probably reflected part-time students being more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“What research strongly suggests is that final degree grades are associated with prior attainment and what we know is that the profile of prior attainment for full-time and part-time students is very different, especially for younger part-time students,” she said.

“The point is that a lot of part-time courses are about improving access,” Professor Callender added.

Fraser Keir, academic registrar at Birkbeck, a college that specialises in offering part-time study, said such students often worked full time and had caring responsibilities so it was “no wonder” they might struggle to devote so much time to their course.

He added that in the years after the rise in tuition fees for undergraduates in 2012, it had “perversely” also been harder for part-time students to access financial support, although they are now able to access living cost loans.

But Mr Keir said Birkbeck was also trying to support part-time students in ways that “lighten the load without compromising standards”, like adapting timetables and assessments to suit their needs. It also has foundation programmes to help those without traditional entry qualifications.

Mr Keir also stressed that the figures on firsts and 2:1s – which have stayed broadly the same at Birkbeck at about 60 per cent as grade inflation has seemingly taken hold elsewhere – showed that for part-time students a final grading may be less of an issue than completing a degree against tougher odds.

“If you look in middle-class towns and the suburbs it can only ever be a 2:1 or a first – anything else is a failure. If you’re a 35-year-old getting a 2:2 degree from having no qualifications at school, it is a tremendous achievement for them and you have got to look at it from the student perspective,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

This does not include Degree Apprentices, who are also studying part-time, but who consistently out-perform on-campus students.
As a commuter, I think there is at least another angle to look at this attainment gap between the full-time students and part-time students. The part-time students are more likely commuter students and mature students who might have other responsibilities such as work and family. The booming commercial student halls perhaps make the full-time students' life easier and enable them spend more time in study. However, the commuter part-time students are likely more time-poor than their current counterparts due to the worsened traffic condition.