Are we asking the wrong question on widening participation?

Why is there so little concern about the catastrophic decline in part-time adult learners in England? asks John Butcher

February 6, 2020
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In English higher education, we are good at producing data but less good at listening to the voices of actual learners. Having done just that for my report Unheard: The Voices of Part-time Adult Learners, published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute, I am convinced that we have been asking the wrong question when it comes to widening access and participation.

"I’m in my 50s with a family…I left high school and just went to work…but there was this thing in the back of my mind saying I could have done more…if I could turn the clock back I would consider going full-time."

It is, of course, important that issues around young peoples’ class, gender, ethnicity, disability and poverty are acknowledged as critical barriers to successful participation in higher education. Equally, it is good that such knowledge influences most institutions’ approaches to their access and participation plans, aimed at closing gaps in access, success and progression.

However, England’s most depressing and frustrating participation issue remains scandalously unaddressed by most institutions: the dramatic, decade-long decline in the numbers of adults studying part-time. Although the Office for Students and, before it, the Office for Fair Access have highlighted the dramatic drop in part-time adult learners in the higher education sector, policymakers have been unable to galvanise universities to act to stop the haemorrhaging of potential learners. Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, there was a 60 per cent fall in the number of people from England studying a part-time undergraduate course within the UK:

"Paying rent or a mortgage impacts on people’s ability and their decision to invest in part-time education…in my late 30s, is it something that is going to have been worth the time, and the financial investment? It’s people like us who have taken the impact of the fees."

The issue is a crucial one because part-time learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and to share characteristics associated with widening participation. They are more likely than full-time students to be on low household incomes, to declare a disability, to possess low or alternative prior entry qualifications and to be the first in their family to engage with higher education. Most part-timers will be limited to provision local to where they live and work, so are the group potentially most aligned with a university’s role in civic engagement. They are exactly the “WP students” universities should be falling over themselves to attract.

"A part-time student is not considered as a demographic in their own right…you are just shoehorned in, lumped with the full-timers…I’m basically too old…"

Success in broadening the full-time participation of the most disadvantaged learners is regularly trumpeted, yet if part-time learners are included in the data, there has been a 16 per cent decline in the number of new undergraduates from low-participation areas. This is an indictment of policies that all too often assume that potential students are all young and all crave full-time study, and that it is enough to raise attainment in schools so that a few more rough diamonds qualify to enter selective universities.

"I’d been at home since I had children…just to come outside was a big thing, but then to come into a university and then to be with academics, listening to lectures and seminars…caused me quite a lot of internal anxiety."

Personal doubts were very common among my interviewees, reflecting both impostor syndrome and feeling like “fish out of water”. They articulated significant issues in their own educational journeys, from barriers faced and why learning did not work for them the first time round, to the challenges of fitting learning around busy lives (especially multiple jobs and family responsibilities). Efforts to raise aspirations and attainment through WP initiatives will not help them, but universities being more informed about part-time learner trajectories could produce far more flexible provision.

Learner voices also revealed a real fear of the cost of investing in their own higher education, perceiving significant financial risk when juggling the costs of rent/mortgage and trying to bring up children while working and studying.

The poor learning experience of part-time students also emerged in their interviews, with inflexible institutions reported as imposing systems designed for full-time students.

Despite more than 20 years of attempts to widen participation, despite the millions of pounds spent on efforts to make access fairer and outcomes more equitable, and despite data analysts toiling away to produce a blur of statistics and bar charts, significant inequities stubbornly persist. And the dramatic decline in adults studying part-time offers the sector a shameful reminder that policies (such as reduced funding for equivalent and lower qualifications and the steep rise in tuition fees) can have unintended consequences on the most vulnerable potential students – and thereby make universities less interesting places.

"I signed up and it invigorated the love of learning that I hadn’t had for about ten years. It built on things I may have missed out at school…I really wanted to get back on track with my life really."

The transformative potential of part-time higher education remains powerful, but a new approach is overdue – especially in England. Perhaps it is time to re-examine the notion that it is primarily 18-year-olds who are best suited to university. Should we invest in policies that produce real flexibility to enable greater participation among those who can study only part-time – but who are likely to benefit most from the experience?

John Butcher is director, access and open at the Open University.

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Reader's comments (1)

Part of the problem, I would imagine, is the abundance of zero hours contracts as this is not only likely to result in problems financially, but also for establishing some sort of routine for studying (especially if one has to seize work opportunities as and when they become available, on a day-by-day basis).

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