Eric Thomas, the UUK president and University of Bristol vice-chancellor, will lead the review, to report in the autumn of this year.
A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Higher Education in England: Impact of the 2012 Reforms, published today, shows that the number of part-time undergraduates and postgraduates entering higher education fell 26.6 per cent to 221,000 in 2012-13 (37 per cent down on 2010-11 levels).
Professor Thomas said: “We have been concerned for some time about recruitment to part-time courses. It is particularly striking that enrolments to part-time courses have declined despite the recent extension of loans to part-time students.
“These figures show starkly that there is a serious issue, and we are determined to get to the bottom of it.
“That is why Universities UK is pleased to have been asked by the minister for universities [David Willetts] to review the evidence on part-time study, and to make urgent practical recommendations on how this provision can be developed.
“Nearly one-third of students at undergraduate level are studying part-time, in some of the most important subjects for this country, such as nursing, education, social work, business and administration.
“Part-time study in the UK has a very important role to play in meeting the needs of students, particularly mature students, and the UK’s future skills agenda. It must also contribute towards improving social mobility.”
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said in response to the Hefce report: “Our world-class university sector has responded well to our reforms. There is a new focus on the quality of the student experience and the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university is at record levels.
“There are no financial barriers to higher education and according to the World Bank the system is exemplary. We need to monitor closely the changing demand for part-time, mature and postgraduate study, and will continue to do so.”
But Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow universities and science minister, said the Hefce report “should give students and universities cause for concern”.
On the fall in part-time students, she said it was “imperative the government put in place a strategy to deal with these swings as such dramatic falls in part-time higher education could have a long-lasting and devastating impact on the UK’s overall skills base”.
She added: “If continued in future years this trend will pull the rug from underneath universities’ essential role in delivering life-long learning and will severely limit opportunities for a higher education for countless thousands of people.”