#PartTimeMatters – what we need in 2013

This post was written by Tricia King, Pro-Vice-Master for Student Experience. It originally appeared as an article in a special issue of the NIACE journal, Adults Learning.

Everyone agrees. Part-time matters. In a turbulent higher education sector, at a time of major change, the opportunity to undertake university study on a part-time basis remains essential. Historically, around a third of all undergraduates in the UK study part-time so this is important.  There is compelling, recent evidence that shows part –time study is a universal good*1. It allows working people to upskill and reskill to support economic growth in a fragile economy, promotes social mobility and gives ‘second chance’ learners a first-class opportunity to transform their lives. It benefits society, employers and, most of all, the individual student who will see a significant return on investment right from the first term of study. The recent HECSU reports provide evidence that part time students gain in confidence, get promoted, earn more, have more secure jobs and exhibit high levels of happiness. So why, as the lessons of 2012 unfold, does it look like part-time study could be the biggest casualty of change. The government supported part-time students by offering them loans for the first time and this welcome innovation might have made 2012 a good news story for part-time but despite no longer having to pay their fees upfront, part-timers are staying away in numbers. There is a real challenge now to secure part-time HE for future generations. The lessons learned at Birkbeck in the 2012 cycle might begin to point at how that might be achieved.

So what went wrong?

As the dust settles on 2012, it’s clear that accurate information for part-time students was extremely hard to come by in the early stages of the cycle. The 2012 recruitment cycle was highly charged and complex as fees trebled and a new loan package was introduced. With everything changing, the institutions involved in the pipeline that brings students to study, focussed their energies on communicating the new information on fees and loans to the mainstream cohort of traditional school leavers. Part-time learners are usually outside of all the support structures as they are mostly not at school or college when they apply to university. They were the most non-traditional and the least confident group of students grappling with the 2012 changes and the new loan regime for part-timers was one of the biggest changes introduced. Opening up government loans to part-timers brought them into the mainstream but the mainstream institutions struggled to understand and quickly communicate the details of the new part-time loans. The Student Loans Company worked hard and fast to gear up its new service to part-timers but it was a steep learning curve and it took time before they were able to provide both accurate information and a service that responded well to a new sort of student asking new types of questions about new loan provision. Government communications with part-timers learners launched late in the day and were nowhere near as well resourced as those targeted at school leavers. Martin Lewis and his Independent Taskforce on Student Finance spotted the gap and worked hard to communicate the part-time story but it was May before the information was circulated and even then Lewis, a high-impact, high-profile finance journalist, found the national media uninterested. Poor communication with such a non-traditional cohort in the 2012 cycle certainly played a role.

However, the downturn in part-time recruitment in 2012 may well turn out to be much bigger than poor information. Recognising the need for good information, institutions like Birkbeck worked extremely hard to communicate with its students. When a year 1 survey was undertaken in autumn 2012, 80% of Birkbeck’s part-time undergraduate students who were eligible, stated that they understood the loan but they were not convinced they should take it. It may not have been a failure to communicate, more a failure to persuade. At Birkbeck, after 6 years of record breaking recruitment, demand remained high. Open evenings were packed and web site traffic hit record levels. But students told the College that were not yet convinced that they would achieve appropriate return on this increased investment.  As adults, often with families and mortgages, Birkbeck students explored the details of the finance package. They understood the costs but were not necessarily convinced enough about the value to enrol in 2012. Many have asked to remain in the Birkbeck systems and have not yet given up on their dreams of study but their confidence in the value of a degree is low.

At Birkbeck, it mostly takes part-time undergraduate students at least three years to move from first enquiry to enrolment and then over half of them apply after July when they are clear that everything aligns in terms of work, money and family, to make study possible. The 2012 downturn may well reflect a reluctance by part-time students to act quickly. Unlike school leavers, they are not part of a well-established process that drives them towards university application and enrolment within a limited timeframe. They may well stall for a year or two to see how the change beds down. They may yet make the decision to study in 2013 or 2014. When fees have gone up before part-time demand has always taken 2-3 years to recover. At a recent Birkbeck open evening almost everyone in the room had enquired about study in 2012 and had either not applied or had deferred their offer to 2013.

For an institution like Birkbeck, one interesting and pleasing aspect of 2012 recruitment was the high levels of enrolment from within the poorest student groups. The government loan and Birkbeck’s generous financial support package encouraged the least well off to take the leap. The biggest downturn is with the group of students just above the income levels that get financial support.  Birkbeck has lost London’s hard-working ‘squeezed middle’.

What now needs to happen?

One urgent issue is to find ways to publicise the cross-sector 2012 downturn in part-time recruitment. Full-time trends are easy to monitor as all students apply through UCAS. That national data has regularly made headline news throughout the 2012 cycle. Part-time students apply directly to the institutions they wish to study at so official national data is only available retrospectively. 2012’s part-time enrolment data will only become available in autumn 2013. That’s far too long to wait. It’s well known across the sector that part-time enrolment is about 30% down on 2011 but that data is not official so a quiet crisis goes largely unreported.

The institutions that manage the pipeline that brings mainstream students into HE need to develop approaches that are flexible enough to accommodate the needs of part-time students. These institutions show every intention of trying to do just that and need the sector’s support to get it right. UCAS are looking at how they can create broad information and advice about all types of university level study. They are working to signal the diversity of HE study available.

At Birkbeck, the power and value of face to face information, advice and guidance for this non-traditional student group is compelling. As part of the intensive communications campaign, Birkbeck ran drop in events for students every week throughout the cycle as well as offering pre-entry career advice and one-to-one support sessions with Birkbeck alumni. The conversion rate from these face to face encounters to the classroom was extremely high. Birkbeck is clear that, in the end it is personal engagement that convinces a non-traditional learner to find their courage and start the course. It seems a combination of good information available on well signposted web sites and fed to students over a period of time combined with the right personal interventions might be the recipe for successful recruitment. The inclusion of real life alumni who have survived the experience and can describe the highs, lows and benefits seems to be particularly important.

Government Ministers are undoubtedly well informed about the downturn in part-time study and are demonstrating interest and concern. They hoped for better outcomes from the introduction of loans for part-timers. They are paying close attention to what policy change or communication initiative might make an impact and improve the situation. The good news is that they have commissioned Universities UK to convene a group to report on the future of university study for part-time and mature learners. Led by UUK President and Vice Chancellor of Bristol University, Professor Eric Thomas, the group will look at issues of supply and demand and develop practical recommendations about how to safeguard the future of part-time study.  The sector is lucky to have a committed and senior champion in Thomas.

Part-time higher education does indeed matter.  As the news of the 2012 downturn begins to emerge, the HE sector starts to acknowledge what may well turn out to be the worst bad news story of the changes. It is worth fighting for. The evidence of its impact on economic growth, employer success, social mobility and the individual student is compelling. We need to pay close and urgent attention before a valuable part of our sector is quietly lost forever.

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