The demise of part-time study – who cares?

This post was contributed by Claire Callender, Professor of higher education at Birkbeck, is based on her contribution to the Higher Education Policy Institute’s new report on part-time study, It’s the finance, stupid!, published today.

Part-time-educationSince 2010-11, the number of entrants to part-time undergraduate study in England has fallen by 55 per cent. Last year alone, the numbers dropped by 10 per cent.

This has gone almost unnoticed by most of the higher education sector, the media, politicians and the public. Yet, if there had been a drop of 55 per cent in full-time undergraduate entrants following the 2012/13 student funding reforms, there would have been uproar.

Universities and other higher education stakeholders would have been outraged and demanded action. Ministers’ heads would have rolled. When this occurred among part-time entrants, nothing happened.

Yet part-time education matters because it transforms lives and drives our economy by enabling people to upskill and advance their careers or reskill for a new one. It matters for higher education, too, because part-time study contributes to a more flexible and diverse sector, while helping to 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 students taking a Bachelor’s degree start to repay four years after starting their course, so long as they are earning over £21,000 a year. They then pay 9 per cent of their income above £21,000, with any outstanding debt written-off after 30 years. The Government at the time claimed these reforms would make part-time study more affordable and open up access. They have had the opposite effect – part-time study is less affordable while numbers have plummeted.

As public funding fell away, tuition fees rose – in some cases tripling. But the majority of potential part-time students do not qualify for the new loans to cover these higher fees because of the overly restrictive eligibility criteria. Instead, they are faced with far higher fees that they have to pay upfront and out of their own pocket. And amongst those who qualify for loans, loan take-up is far lower than predicted. The government estimated that a third of part-timers would take out loans. But only 19% have done so since the new loans were introduced. This suggests that these loans are not necessarily perceived as a 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 ever before.

The recession may have contributed to the fall in demand for part-time study. However, the recession in England was less severe than in the rest of the UK yet 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 too 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. Even if demand recovers, reviving dismantled part-time provision and infrastructure will be challenging.

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. It also needs to consider larger subsidies to part-time study to encourage demand.

If the government is committed to up-skilling the workforce, it must take some radical action to arrest the decline of part-time study before it becomes terminal.

Birkbeck is an advocate for combining work and study. More information can be found here.

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