Sir Eric Thomas: plunge in part-time study now ‘much higher priority’

Bristol v-c admits he did not know who was in charge of policy at his institution when he led UUK review

April 3, 2014

Source: Alamy

Missing links: part-time undergraduate cohort shrank 40 per cent in two years

The man who led a Universities UK review into the recent slump in part-time degree study has admitted that when he took on the task, he did not know who was in charge of his own university’s strategy on the issue.

Sir Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, said that he needed to ask his senior management team for the answer as he started to look at why the numbers of undergraduates starting part-time courses fell by 40 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13.

However, he “did not get a coherent, single-sentence answer” to the question of who was leading on the issue at Bristol, the former UUK president told a Westminster Higher Education Forum event in London on part-time and mature students.

The confusion over responsibility for part-time students at his own institution had now been resolved, with the issue now a “much higher priority”, Sir Eric added.

Bristol is now working more closely with its neighbour, the University of the West of England, on part-time course provision, and is also developing flexible ways of studying in certain subjects, Sir Eric noted.

This episode had, however, helped to inform one of the recommendations of the UUK review, published in October 2013, which said that all universities must make part-time study an “intrinsic part of their thinking”, he added.

The review considered whether some universities had decided to opt out of providing part-time courses. Sir Eric said the panel had reached the view that “it was a public duty…that all universities should provide part-time study”.

However, the conference on 25 March heard that selective universities may have been reluctant to work to attract part-time students because that cohort has higher drop-out rates and lower degree classifications.

According to Sarah Howls, head of student opportunity at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, citing a 2009 study of about 6,500 students, just 39 per cent of part-time students finish their degree course.

Part-time students are also 20 per cent less likely to obtain an upper second-class honours degree than full-time students, Ms Howls said.

But success rates are much better at further education colleges offering higher education, with more than 70 per cent of students finishing their courses, claimed Michele Sutton, president of the Association of Colleges and chief executive of Bradford College Group.

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