We must act now to save part-time university education

Higher fees are to blame for plunging enrolments, says Claire Callender, and dismantling of provision may make loss irreversible

October 29, 2015
Dale Edwin Murray illustration (29 October 2015)
Source: Dale Edwin Murray

Since 2010-11, the number of entrants to part-time undergraduate study in England has fallen by 55 per cent. This matters because part-time higher education transforms lives and drives our economy. It matters for higher education, too, since part-time study contributes to a more flexible and diverse system and helps widen participation and increase social mobility.

In 2012-13, public teaching funding in England was largely replaced by tuition fees, capped for part-time students at £6,750 a year. Income contingent loans were made available to cover the fees, which bachelor’s degree students are currently obliged to start paying back four years after starting their course, as long as they are earning £21,000 a year. They pay 9 per cent of their income above £21,000, with any outstanding debt written off after 30 years.

The 2011 higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, claimed these reforms would open up access to part-time study by making it more affordable. But they have had the opposite effect. As public funding fell away, tuition fees predictably rose, in some cases tripling. Meanwhile, the decline in part-time enrolments accelerated. Last year alone, the numbers dropped by 10 per cent. Consequently, by 2014-15, part-timers made up only 23 per cent of all undergraduate entrants, compared with 40 per cent in 2010-11.

Part-time study’s role in widening participation has been further undermined by the fact that the falls have been greatest among older students, those with low-level entry qualifications and those studying at an intensity of less than 25 per cent of full-time. This last group do not qualify for loans; nor do those who are not studying for a specific qualification that is higher than any they have previously earned. This is far too restrictive. It rules out an estimated two-thirds of would-be part-time students (mostly because they already have a degree), forcing them to pay upfront and out of their own pocket.

This policy is based on two misplaced assumptions: that employers pay their employees’ tuition fees and that, because most part-time students are employed, they can afford high fees. But, since 2012-13, the proportion of students receiving employer sponsorship has fallen by 35 per cent, suggesting that escalating fees are an obstacle for employers too. Moreover, even among those eligible, loan take-up has been far lower than the 33 per cent predicted by the coalition government. In 2012-13, 22 per cent of part-time entrants took out a loan; by 2013-14, just 19 per cent of those starting after September 2012 had done so. This suggests income-contingent loans are not necessarily perceived by potential students as an adequate safeguard against the risks of part-time study.

Part-timers are typically older than full-time students, and have numerous family and financial responsibilities that take priority over discretionary spending such as on study – especially in times of economic uncertainty. Put simply, part-time study is unaffordable for more people than it was before.

That conclusion is strengthened by the fact that while the recession in England was less severe than in the rest of the UK, the decline in part-time entrants in England has been far greater. The difference is that the other UK countries did not withdraw teaching funding or increase tuition fees.

As demand for part-time study has dropped, so has the supply. There are no longer any incentives for higher education institutions to offer more expensive and risky part-time courses, especially where there is an excess of demand for now-uncapped full-time courses. And the part-time courses being closed down are overwhelmingly vocationally orientated sub-degrees and shorter courses (the latter do not qualify for loans). Since part-time students’ commitments make them less mobile than full-time students, they usually attend their local university. So when local part-time courses close, the door to higher education closes on them.

Even if demand recovers, reviving dismantled part-time provision and infrastructure will be challenging. So if the government is committed to upskilling the workforce, it will need to take some radical action to arrest the decline before it becomes terminal. The student loan rules, which are designed for young, full-time students, need to be rejigged to acknowledge the distinctive characteristics of the part-time population. At a minimum, the government needs to loosen the eligibility criteria. And policy has to recognise that while there are high social returns to part-time study, the financial returns are lower than those from full-time undergraduate study. This is a justification for larger government subsidies to encourage demand (by allowing universities to reduce their fees).

If there had been a drop of 55 per cent in full-time undergraduate entrants since the student funding reforms, it would have been headline news. Universities and other higher education stakeholders would have been outraged and demanded action. Ministers’ heads would have rolled. But when this occurred among part-time entrants, there was silence. Now is the time to break the silence.

Claire Callender is professor of higher education at Birkbeck, University of London and the UCL Institute of Education. This is an edited version of her contribution to the Higher Education Policy Institute’s blue book on part-time study, It’s the finance, stupid!, published today.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Narrowed participation: the closing of the door to part-time study

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