The first sign of a change in government thinking on financial support for part-time students emerged this week, as ministers approved a "sliding scale" of grants.
After a lobbying campaign by the Open University and Birkbeck College, University of London, ministers have decided to link the amount of support available in 2005 to the "intensity" of part-time study.
Students who earn less than £14,970 will receive a grant of between £590 and £885 to help with their course fees, depending on how close their study is to being full time.
The Government's move follows concerns that part-time study was omitted from the Higher Education Act, which will introduce a grant for full-time undergraduates in 2006 and defers the payment of their tuition fees until after they graduate.
Ministers have yet to decide whether the changes for full-time undergraduates in two year's time should be mirrored by similar changes for their part-time counterparts.
David Vincent, pro vice-chancellor of the OU, said: "The change for 2005 is an important change and one that we have been lobbying for.
"Not only does it make more money available for part-time students, but it also uses the principle of a sliding scale between full and part-time study, which is the way we believe things should be going.
"Of course, we are heading towards the rock face of 2006. These figures are linked to the existing fee level, and what happens from 2006 is a question that is not answered in the Government's decision."
Baroness (Betty) Boothroyd, OU chancellor, was among the most strident supporters of part-time students when the Higher Education Bill was considered by the House of Lords earlier this year.
Under the existing means-tested system, part-time students can receive a grant of up to £575 towards fees. Under the new system, a student studying at 50 per cent of the intensity of a full-time course will receive £590, at 60 per cent £710 and at 75 per cent £885.
A further flat-rate grant for part-time students of £250 a year was introduced this year.
Ministers decided to introduce the sliding scale of grants in 2005 after receiving the findings of a student income and expen-diture survey from OU academics.
The Department for Education and Skills said: "Support for part-time students was introduced as recently as 1998 and the levels of support have improved since then.
"Ministers have recognised the need to do even more for part-time students and this change will mean that, for the first time, the intensity of a student's study is reflected in the levels of support they are entitled to."
But David Tidmarsh, vice-chancellor of Anglia Polytechnic University, where half of the students at the Chelmsford campus are part-time undergraduates, said: "If this is a transitional arrangement towards a decent support system that recognises the cost of educating part-time students, it is good news.
"But what we need to know is what happens post-2006 and what the government thinking is about deferred fees and the repayment criteria."
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