The Universities UK report, published today, was commissioned by the government in response to a 40 per cent decline in part-time undergraduate numbers in England in the two years since 2010-11.
“Indications for 2013-14 are that the level of decline will not be stemmed,” says the review, titled The power of part-time: review of part-time and mature higher education and chaired by University of Bristol vice-chancellor Eric Thomas.
Factors behind the sharp decline identified by the report include the tough economic climate restricting employers’ willingness to support study and individuals’ readiness to commit to courses, as well as the advent of £9,000 fees in England.
Among the report’s recommendations are that higher education institutions, government and funding councils “should consider the needs of part-time and mature students as an intrinsic part of their thinking, not as an add-on”.
On the required “urgent push” to promote part-time study, it recommends that bodies including UUK, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, the Confederation of British Industry and Trades Union Congress “implement a clearly targeted national communications strategy, aimed at both potential students and employers, to encourage mature and part-time students into higher education. This should be done immediately in order to have an effect on 2014-15 entry.”
The report acknowledges that higher education institutions widely see the bar on funding for second degrees – the Equivalent or Lower Qualifications (ELQ) rule – as a barrier for part-time students.
However, the recommendations do not state that the rule should be changed, only that the recent, limited reforms to the rule announced by the government should be “monitored carefully”.
Professor Thomas said: “The reality is that the UK needs more graduates and relies heavily on part-time higher education to meet fast changing skills needs in a fast changing world. We ignore part-time study’s transformative power for individuals and society at our peril.”
He added: “In England in particular, numbers are declining and do not look like rallying…This review is the beginning of a process of universities working together with partners to take steps in addressing this issue. We cannot and must not give up on these students.”