Part-time students, who account for nearly 42 per cent of the student population, are becoming an "underclass" in higher education - poorly funded and neglected by the Government, vice-chancellors have claimed.
Universities UK this week called on politicians forming the next government to rescue the situation by providing cash to meet the full cost of teaching part-timers and by offering these students more financial support.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show a 4.2 per cent rise in the number of first-year part-time students in 2003-04 to 406,550.
Overall, the increase contributed to a 2.6 per cent growth in the part-time student body across all years of study to 812,475, representing 41.7 per cent of higher education students.
UUK pointed out that the latest figures continue a trend that has seen part-time student numbers grow by 75 per cent from 1994-95 to 2002-03.
Part-time students make up more than half the student body in 11 universities.
Yet this trend has been virtually ignored in policy changes, most notably in the Higher Education Act, vice-chancellors say. Part-timers will continue to pay fees upfront and are not entitled to bursaries available to full-timers.
A UUK representative said: "Unless the Government takes action, the provision of part-time higher education will become less attractive to cash-strapped universities, just when we ought to be making the most of the strengths of this form of higher education."
Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "This has been a major blind spot in government policy. For institutions that have a lot of part-time students, there is a question about whether many of their courses will continue to be sustainable."
David Vincent, pro vice-chancellor of the Open University, where all students are part time, said: "It remains a striking anomaly that the part-time section of the student body was excluded from the Higher Education Act."
A spokesman for Thames Valley University, where part-timers account for two thirds of the student body, said: "Part-time students are already an underclass in terms of the level and the way they are funded and the financial support they receive."
Nearly half of all part-timers are on foundation degree, higher national diploma or certificate courses. Women comprise 62.4 per cent, up from 61.6 per cent the previous year.