A Universities UK report on part-time study warns of the potential for “market failure” under England’s £9,000 fee regime, recommending that such provision be intrinsic to higher education policy instead of an “add-on”.
However, some in the sector have warned that the report “doesn’t bite the bullet” on key issues such as funding for second degrees or part-time students’ particular price sensitivity to fees.
The review, chaired by Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, was commissioned by the government in response to the 40 per cent fall in part-time undergraduate numbers in England since 2010-11, equivalent to a 105,000 drop. Numbers in Scotland and Wales have also declined, but to a lesser extent.
The UK economy “relies heavily on part-time higher education to up-skill the working population” and such study “cannot be ignored if we want economic growth”, says the report, published on 16 October and titled The Power of Part-time: Review of Part-time and Mature Higher Education.
It finds that a “perfect storm” of factors is behind the drop in numbers. The factors include the bleak economic situation restricting employer support for further study while putting pressure on household budgets, plus the advent of £9,000 fees. There are “strong concerns that part-time higher education is an example of market failure under the new funding regime in England”, the report warns.
It recommends that higher education institutions, the government and the funding councils “consider the needs of part-time and mature students as an intrinsic part of their thinking, not as an add-on”.
On the equivalent or lower-level qualification (ELQ) bar – the rule introduced in 2008 stopping students from accessing loan funding for such degrees – the report says it has been “frequently cited” by respondents to the review “as a barrier for part-time learners wishing to re-skill”.
However, the recommendations state only that the government’s recent removal of the ELQ bar in engineering and computer technology be “monitored carefully”.
The report also calls for an investigation of whether any further lifting of the bar would lead to the unwelcome introduction of student number controls for part-timers.
David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, University of London, said the report was positive “in terms of identifying the problems”.
But he added that the ELQ bar – which he would like to see abolished for vocational subjects at least – was “one issue of several where the report basically says we should investigate things further. Clearly our view is things should be done.”
Professor Latchman said that the report “doesn’t necessarily bite the bullet and say the government should do X, Y and Z”.
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, said: “It’s not just about telling a more convincing story of the benefits of higher education, extending loans or rolling back regulations on ELQs – we need to see part-time as a priority, with close attention to costing, pricing and course design, as well as the factors…driving down demand in a weak labour market.”