Ministers asked to revise funding eligibility criteria, says Jessica Shepherd
Vice-chancellors this week called on the Government to give financial help to more part-time students.
They will tell MPs and the House of Lords on Thursday how thousands of part-timers are struggling to pay for courses because they are not eligible for funding.
Under current rules, financial support is not available to part-timers who already have higher education qualifications. And if a part-timer studies for less than 50 per cent of a full-time course, he or she is ineligible for financial help.
Universities UK, which represents all vice-chancellors, will ask for the 50 per cent bar to be lowered. It will also request that part-timers who already have higher education qualifications be made eligible for funding.
Diana Green, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and chair of the UUK steering group on part-time study, said these changes would encourage more people to gain skills at universities.
She said: "The reason why a student is ineligible for public support often has nothing to do with economic circumstances. Often they are excluded from financial support because they are studying for less than 50 per cent of a full-time course or already have some form of higher education qualification.
"We would therefore ask the Government to re-examine the scope of public support for part-time students both in terms of its value and eligibility criteria."
Leni Oglesby, deputy vice-chancellor of Teesside University, said many part-timers were caught in a "poverty trap" at her institution, where 55 per cent of students study part time.
She said: "They may start in a position where their earnings mean that all their fees are paid for, but once they get a small promotion at work they cease to be eligible for financial help. There should be more bursaries and scholarships for part-timers."
UUK conducted a study over two years in preparation for this week's meeting at Westminster.
The study, Part-Time Students in Higher Education - Supporting Higher-Level Skills and Lifelong Learning , identifies some of the problems universities find with part-time study.
It says the UK's 817,000 part-time students, equivalent to about 42 per cent of all higher education students, are prepared to pay a maximum of £600 a year and universities need much more than this to fund them.
Institutions are worried that there will be a significant drop in numbers if they raise fees, as the Government has recommended.
The study also asks for future debate on tuition fees to be informed by the needs of part-time students and implies that, until now, the Government has neglected issues related to part-time study for universities.
Professor Green said: "Government seems to assume that students go to university at 18 and leave at 21. They haven't moved on from the myth that the only way to study is the full-time model."