#PartTimeMatters – research insights

This post was contributed by Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy in Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies.

There is much to celebrate about part-time study and its life-changing rewards. My research tracking the career development of 3,700 part-time undergraduate students from their first year at university until two years after graduation demonstrates the benefits of part-time study. Four out of five of current students were working, mostly in full-time jobs in the public sector whilst 91% were employed two years after finishing their studies. The vast majority were using the skills they had learnt on their course in their jobs, so their studies were highly relevant to their working lives, and benefitted their employers too. In addition, over two-thirds of students, and four in five who had finished studying, believed that their ability to do their work had improved as a direct result of their course. Over a half of students in their first year and two-thirds of graduates had taken on more responsibility at work. This shows that those taking part-time courses start to profit from their learning well before they complete their studies. However, these positive outcomes were not always rewarded by employers. In fact, only 29% of students and about a half of graduates had a pay rise as a direct result of taking their course.

Both students’ and graduates’ non-working lives also were enriched by their studies. Four out of five students and nearly 90% of graduates said part-time study helped them develop as a person. Two thirds of students and nearly four in five graduates had greater self-confidence while well over a half of both current students and graduates were happier. Again, students benefited before they had graduated.

Despite all these life-changing gains from part-time study, part-time enrolments in England have fallen by 40% since 2010. This sudden and very dramatic fall suggests that the large increase in tuition fees in 2012 has played an important part, alongside the recession and cuts in training budgets. Loans are now available to cover the higher part-time tuition fees, but the majority of part-time students do not qualify for them. The loan eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Consequently, most people wanting to study part-time have to pay for their fees up-front and out of their own pocket.

Our research provides some insights about what needs to be done to stem declining enrolments and increase the demand for part-time study. It confirms the wider benefits of learning, and how society as a whole – not just individual students – benefit from part-time study. Remember most part-time students work in the public services. Nationally, the two most popular subjects studied part-time are ‘subjects allied to medicine’ such as nursing and midwifery, and education – taken by those wanting to be teachers. We all benefit from the skills these people learn. Yet, these professions are not very well paid compared to other professions. Although the financial returns to part-time study for individuals may be low, the wider non-financial benefits both for individuals and for society are high. As any economist will tell us, together these low ‘private returns’ and high ‘public returns’ justify more generous government subsidies and funding to keep tuition fees low and to encourage demand.

Other important characteristics of part-time students also support the case for low tuition fees and greater government subsidies. The vast majority of part-time students attend their local university because of their work and family commitments. They have to fit their studies around their existing responsibilities. Consequently, their choices of where to study are restricted. For instance, would-be students can’t opt for a cheaper course at a university miles away from where they live or work. If their local university is too expensive, they simply will not go, as they can’t shop around for a cheaper alternative. In addition, for part-time students, their decision about whether or not to go to university is more likely to be affected by the costs. Prospective part-time students may consider that these costs – the fees, maintenance and opportunity costs-  outweigh the benefits. Put simply, they feel that part-time study is just too expensive and unaffordable. The most efficient solution is more government subsidies to local universities to keep prices down and more financial help to part-time students to drive up demand – benefiting everyone.

15-14 May 2013 is Adult Learners’ Week. Find out more about the #PartTimeMatters campaign being launched by Birkbeck and an alliance of universities, businesses and unions.

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Positive signals welcome, but more action needed to support students over 60

By Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck.

This post was originally published on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network.

I was delighted to hear David Willetts, Minister of Universities and Science, encourage older learners to enrol on university courses. His comments about studying for the over 60s focused on the benefits of retraining and reskilling, and this emphasis is appropriate. Improving employability and productivity for this age group is essential, especially as the retirement age is due to rise to 68. But words are not enough. Older learners need more support to encourage them to enrol on university courses, and society’s prejudices against older learners need to be tackled too.

I have congratulated many older students on their academic achievements at graduation ceremonies over the years. The hard work they have shown to complete their courses and their courage to learn when many assume studying is only for younger people are an inspiration to us all. Their successes prove that the young do not have a monopoly on energy, intelligence and aspiration.

Studying for the over 60s is beneficial for many reasons, not only for improving skills needed in the modern workplace. Learning in your older years keeps your brain active, and discussing ideas and socialising is an important part of the university experience. Studying is an effective way for the over 60s to tackle the spectre of isolation, loneliness and depression, which can accompany old age. Often the older the student, the more they appreciate the opportunity to study. Those students who left school at a young age and missed out on university aged 18 are often more enthusiastic about education than their peers. Moreover, it is not just the older students that benefit from their education. Younger students frequently say that their learning is enriched by the contributions in the classroom from older students with considerable life, and work, experience.

Our older students have remarkable stories to tell. Some of them are returning to education decades after having left school as teenagers. Others continue with their newfound interests, and progress from undergraduate study to postgraduate level. Older learners definitely provide an inspiration to the younger generations. One such example is Gerald Nathanson. Growing up during the Second World War, his education was severely disrupted as he was evacuated twice, and by the time he left school, aged 15, he had been to 11 different schools. After the War, he worked as a black cab driver for 42 years, yet was always conscious that he had not received a proper education. Aged 74, he enrolled onto Birkbeck’s BA History degree, and he graduated four years later in November 2012. The graduation ceremony was one of the proudest moments of his life.

At Birkbeck, University of London, we know more than most higher education institutions about teaching older learners. At 88, our oldest student is an incredible 70 years older than our youngest students, aged 18, and, in recent years, a 100-year-old student graduated from Birkbeck. There are currently 490 students over 60 enrolled on our courses. This represents three per cent of our student body. Birkbeck is ranked third in terms of higher education institutions teaching students aged 60 and over in their first year of their first degree, according to 2011/12 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

A recent survey at Birkbeck also revealed the reasons why older people are thinking about studying at an age when many are thinking about retirement. Respondents over 60, who enrolled on undergraduate courses at Birkbeck in 2012, said the most important motivation for studying was personal development (75 per cent), followed by career/professional development (25 per cent). Respondents over 60, who enrolled on postgraduate courses at Birkbeck in 2012, said the most important motivation for studying was personal development (70 per cent), and missing out earlier in life also featured (10 per cent).

As London’s only specialist provider of part-time, evening higher education, we cater for students managing study alongside careers or other commitments. We encourage applications from students without traditional qualifications and we have a wide range of programmes to suit every entry level.

Our experiences have taught us that prospective students, including older students, are often confused by the student loan and tuition fee regime introduced last year by the Coalition Government. The eligibility criteria for student loans have not been communicated effectively by the higher education sector, and much of the task of explaining the new system has been left to individual institutions.

In summary, students can apply for a loan to cover their tuition fees if they:

  1. Want to study for an undergraduate degree or certificate of higher education
  2. Have never studied at this level before
  3. Are classified as a Home/EU student

Students then only begin repaying the loan once they are earning £21,000 a year – an unlikely situation for many pensioners. The loan is written off after 30 years.

Based on our experiences, we urge the Government, universities, the National Union of Students, and other stakeholders in the higher education sector to:

  • Undertake outreach activities to target prospective older students
  • Provide information and incentives to employers to encourage their older staff to embark on university courses
  • Contribute to the discussions and forthcoming recommendations of the Part-time and mature students steering group convened by Universities UK and led by Professor Eric Thomas, UUK President and Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University
  • Champion the successes of older learners

It’s worth remembering too that people over 60 are responsible for many remarkable achievements in various fields of human endeavour. The late President of Birkbeck, the great historian Professor Eric Hobsbawm, continued writing in his nineties, the UK’s oldest Prime Minister was William Gladstone, aged 84, and Dame Judi Dench, aged 78, continues to star in major films. If someone is over 60 they should be encouraged to embark on learning something new. It’s never too late to learn.

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