Think-tank urges end to 'injustice' for part-timers

Report says some of the University Challenge cash should be redirected. Rebecca Attwood reports

August 20, 2009

Ending the "scandalously unfair" treatment of part-time students would help to solve the crisis over student places that is expected to come to a head this week, a think-tank has claimed.

In a new report, Policy Exchange, which has links to the Conservative Party, describes funding for part-time students as "one of the greatest and most glossed-over injustices in the English higher education system".

One third of undergraduates are now part-time students, but 90 per cent receive no financial support from the Government.

The think-tank has published plans for a new funding system that would see an extra £33 million spent on part-time students, providing another 60,000 with financial support.

"The crisis that higher education is heading towards this month, with a massive shortage of student places and a surge in applications, throws a spotlight on the level and type of provision in the sector," the report says.

"The boom in student applications has been driven in part by major growth in interest from older students, many of whom may have preferred to study part-time alongside a job if only there was proper help available from the Government."

Part-time students have to pay their fees upfront, can't take out a government-supported loan, and have a slim chance of securing any financial support, the report, co-authored by Claire Callender, professor of higher education policy at Birkbeck, University of London, says.

Only one third receive any financial assistance from their employer, and the authors argue that this tends to go to those who need it least.

Under the think-tank's model, money would be diverted from the Government's University Challenge programme to bring the part-time system in line with full-time student support: those with a household income of up to £50,000 would be entitled to a partial tuition fee grant.

At the moment, many part-time students do not qualify for financial support because they study less than 50 per cent of the full-time course, but the think-tank would lower this boundary to 30 per cent.

The document also heavily criticises the Government's £150 million University Challenge programme, which aims to create 20 new higher education centres in under-served towns.

"While widening access to higher education is an important aim, we remain unconvinced that this ill-thought-through scheme is plugging genuine gaps in the market.

"We feel strongly that it is a poor use of public money and may in fact harm existing regional and local partnerships between universities and further education colleges.

"Around £30 million should be diverted from this scheme as a priority to broaden support for part-time students," it says.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Students this week published a league table of the UK's "most expensive" degrees, which looked at the "hidden costs" associated with studying different subjects. Top of the league was mathematical or computer sciences, which the NUS said required students to spend £1,430 each year on books, equipment and fieldwork, on top of their tuition fees and living expenses.

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