An increased package of financial aid for part-timers will bring benefits for students and institutions, Bill Rammell writes
This week, I announced the funding arrangements for part-time undergraduate study for 2006-07. At the centre of the package is a significant increase in targeted fee support, underlining the continued commitment of the Government to part-time study. I am proud that, in 1998, we became the first Government to provide help to part-timers to pay their fees through a fee-waiver scheme. I am also proud that we have not sought to rest on our laurels but have worked to improve the support available for those studying part time and for the part-time sector generally. The Government recognises the tremendous importance of the part-time sector to the economy, to wider society and to 500,000 individual students.
The UK's part-time sector is in robust health. Student numbers have been growing year on year for the past decade and we know from the National Student Survey that part-time undergraduates are among the most satisfied.
I've been concerned, then, that some institutions feel that part-time provision may be less attractive after 2006 and that the desire to look closely at fee setting to find the best market price for provision is hampered by the limits of student support. I have listened to the concerns and decided that our student-support package must change to keep pace with circumstances. So how do we best do this?
There is no such thing as a typical part-time student. In fact, the ability of part-time provision to appeal to students with very different needs is one of its main attractions. Most part-timers work while they study, with two thirds in full-time employment, and earning incomes in line with national averages. Moreover, a third of part-time undergraduates receive full-fee support from their employers. For such students, the vocational relevance of curriculum and flexibility of provision are key to participation. We support innovation and partnership between universities and employers to win the confidence of such students and their funders.
Others would struggle to cover the cost of tuition fees and of studying without financial help. The Government has the task of finding the best way to continue to fund the part-time sector via the institutions while offering support to those students who most need it.
The package of support for 2006-07 includes an increase of per cent in the fee grant compared with the 2005-06 package, rising from £1,180 to Pounds 1,500 as full-time equivalence. There is a change in the Access to Learning Fund (Alf) to provide a fourfold increase in the money distributed against part-time student numbers, and to allow institutions to put this money towards additional fee support for those students who may need extra help.
The increase in the fee grant will mean that a student studying at 50 per cent of the full-time equivalent and eligible for £590 in 2005-06 could receive up to £750 in fee grant in 2006-07, and a student studying at 75 per cent of the full-time equivalent and eligible for £885 in 2005-06 could receive up to £1,125 in 2006-07. In addition, we will continue to offer a course grant of up to £250.
The increased money available via Alf, and the decision to allow it to be used for fee support also, places the responsibility for allocating this cash most effectively on the institutions. Thus, an institution can look at its student profile, its widening participation strategy and its particular needs to decide how best this additional resource can support those students who most need extra help - either through additional fee support or through a significant increase in hardship support to help sustain participation from students facing the very greatest financial difficulties.
Alongside these measures, the Higher Education Funding Council for England board will be considering institutional funding for part-time undergraduate provision. And I welcome work by the Higher Education Academy to spread understanding of the most innovative and effective means of responding to the needs of work-based learners.
In a deregulated market, it will continue to be institutions that have to make hard choices about fee levels. In doing so, they must not feel constrained by the level of fee support available to students on low incomes. The package provides this reassurance to institutions and to students. Taken alongside the new student finance support package for full-timers - no upfront fees, no repayment until you're in work and earning £15,000, and the return of means-tested non-repayable grants - this means no one should be deterred from going to higher education, and institutions will be better off.
Bill Rammell is Higher Education Minister.