The Government this week announced a multimillion-pound funding boost for part-time students in England, including grants to help pay fees for the poorest students.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, revealed that hardship funds allocated to higher education institutions to help part-time students will quadruple from £3 million to £12 million from September 2006.
Government contributions to fees for the poorest part-time students will be increased by more than a quarter.
David Vincent, pro vice-chancellor of the Open University, said that the announcement signalled a "historical turning point" for the part-time sector.
The move was also welcomed by Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, the umbrella organisation for vice-chancellors. But Professor Bone added that part-time students would remain underfunded compared with their full-time counterparts.
Under the changes, £12 million a year in 2006-07 and 2007-08 will be allocated by universities and colleges to part-time students through the Access to Learning Fund. Institutions will be allowed to use money to implement fee waivers for part-time students or to increase other forms of support.
Government contributions to fees will rise from £590 to £750 for students studying half the time and from £885 to £1,125 for those studying three quarters of the time. This will apply to about 85,000 part-time students.
Unlike full-time students, who from 2006 will be able to defer paying fees until after graduation, part-time students still have to pay upfront. And unlike full-time undergraduates in England, part-timers can be charged different fee levels by institutions.
Mr Rammell said that the funding "may not be the last word" but addressed some of the concerns of the sector.
Professor Vincent said that the announcement marked a change in relations between the Government and the part-time higher education sector.
He added: "This package shows that the Government has understood that the part-time sector needs to be heard as much as the full-time sector.
"There appears to be a real desire to work with the sector, too, to try to resolve the problems that the Higher Education Act created and to exploit the part-time sector to its full potential."
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "The absence of student support arrangements for part-time undergraduate study from the 2004 Act was a big omission.
"We therefore very much welcome the fact that the Government is seeking to ensure that both part-time students and the universities that support their studies are not disadvantaged in 2006."
Mr Rammell added that the Higher Education Funding Council for England would consider proposals for increasing support to institutions for part-time students.