Amid the widespread chorus of praise for Dearing, few have paused to notice its signal failure to address the disadvantages under which part-time students have laboured for so long. Contrary to what one might think in following the public debate on the report's recommendations, part-time students are far from being an unrepresentative minority. No less than 28 per cent of students in conventional higher education institutions are studying part-time, with another 7 per cent taking part-time degrees at the Open University, over a third in all. Nine out of ten of these students are already in employment. The vast majority pay their tuition fees and maintenance costs out of their own earnings.
Yet Sir Ron and his committee have done nothing to encourage any further growth in part-time study. They urge a lifting of the cap on full-time student numbers, but they say nothing about present restrictions on part-time numbers imposed by the baroque complexities of recently introduced funding council regulations.
At the moment, institutions such as Birkbeck, where 92 per cent of the degree-level students are part-time, receive no extra funding for increasing student numbers.
Above all, the report rejects the idea of providing government support for part-time students through a loan system, which would enable them to pay tuition fees in a similar way to that proposed for full-timers. It even rejects the idea of a means-tested loans system for part-timers on the grounds that it would be too expensive to operate. The most it is prepared to recommend is remission of fees for part-time students in receipt of benefits, and the reform of social security rules to ensure there are no obstacles to the disadvantaged in undertaking part-time study.
The reason Sir Ron and his colleagues give for their decision not to remove the inequities in the system is the fact that some 35 per cent of part-time students have their fees paid by their employers, and any government assistance would simply prompt employers to transfer these costs to the state. Yet this is true only of certain kinds of part-time study, in particular of part-time study for professional qualifications, training courses and vocational schemes. It is not true of the vast majority of students taking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. At the briefing held to launch his report, Sir Ron Dearing conceded that at Birkbeck and the Open University hardly any students have their fees paid by employers. At Birkbeck, students often make tremendous financial sacrifices to get their degrees; the vice chancellor of the Open University has made a similar point.
These are the students who will continue to be seriously disadvantaged if the Dearing report's recommendations are accepted by the Government. The secretary of state has said that he will be looking at the position of part-timers over the summer. But he seems to be assuming that this review will mainly be concerned with sub-degree-level students in further education. David Blunkett must surely extend his review to include the 560,000 students studying part-time in higher education as well.
It is surely not beyond the wit of the Department for Education and Employment and the Treasury to devise some loan scheme which would relieve the pockets of self-funding part-timers without discouraging employers from making a contribution where this occurs.
Sir Ron and his committee have said that they would like to see the "learning society" develop along flexible lines, with students returning to higher education in later life, or moving from full-time to part-time study and back again as the need and inclination arises.
Richard J. Evans is acting master of Birkbeck College, University of London.