The rapid decline in part-time student numbers will continue unless ministers slash tuition fees, experts have warned.
Speaking at a Universities UK conference on part-time provision, several sector figures urged the government to reintroduce generous subsidies for such courses to allow universities to offer them at heavily discounted prices.
If part-time charges remained at current levels – linked pro rata to £9,000 fees for full-time students – “things could get worse, not better”, said Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
“I have always called for equal treatment for full- and part-time students, but that is now insufficient,” he told delegates at the conference, held in central London on 16 October to mark the launch of the UUK report The Power of Part-time: Review of Part-time and Mature Education.
“We need to treat them differently and probably better than full-time students.”
Part-timers should pay for “only a small part of the cost” of their courses, with the remainder funded by the state, Mr Bekhradnia argued. Introducing a lower “net price” would not cost the Treasury much, as part-timers were unlikely to pay back their tuition fees in full because they often drop out or are older when they start to repay their loans.
The resource accounting and budgeting charge (the proportion of student loans forecast to be written off by the government) for part-timers was between 60 and 70 per cent compared with about 35 per cent for full-timers, he said.
The Treasury might as well give this cash away and provide incentives at the same time, he argued.
Raising awareness of the benefits of part-time education – one of the UUK report’s recommendations – would do only so much to arrest the decline in numbers, Mr Bekhradnia warned: “However you market it, it is a hard sell because the costs are so high and success rates so low.”
Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London, argued that higher subsidies for part-timers made economic sense because they would help “upskill” the economy.
“If you have high social benefits and low private returns, then you subsidise,” she said. “Any economist will tell you that is the justification for higher investment.”
While Professor Callender welcomed UUK’s report, she also criticised parts of it, including its argument that universities might increase part-time provision simply because it was a “public good”.
If part-timers were not seen “as valuable to the sector, you have a problem”, she added.