We need to reassert the value of part-time higher study

18 February 2013

The latest  guest blog exploring the decline in part-time HE student recruitment – Mary Stuart asks why the introduction of loans for part-time students has failed to deliver the expected boost in part-time HE and reflects on the cost to the economy and to society more widely.

Part-time higher education has had many challenges over the last 30 years but the last few years have been particularly challenging. There are challenges in all nations of the UK for part-time education, and different policies and ideas for the focus for part-time learning, but the greatest reductions in part-time students this year have been in England.

The increase in fees for full-time undergraduates and the subsequent fall in numbers in 2012 have dominated the news but the reality is that the largest impact on recruitment has been felt in the part-time and mature arena.

Institutions are naturally careful about what they say but it is clear that many have seen drops in recruitment larger than the most dramatic falls in full-time student numbers.

The government agreed to offer loans to undergraduate part-time students for the first time in 2012 and clearly believed that this would provide a significant boost for part-time higher education. This has not proved to be the case. Falls in student numbers are as great as 40% in some institutions and although part-time students seldom apply before Easter time, from talking to colleagues in different institutions, very early indications for 2013 do not suggest a major bounce back. Part-time mature students have always been very price sensitive and clearly this has had a major impact on recruitment, particularly at a time when wages are depressed and workers are concerned about their jobs.

We know that ‘over 70% of our 2020 workforce have already completed their compulsory education’ (Leitch report, 2006). Part-time higher education for returners to education while in work is a vital part of supporting our economic recovery. Hence, there is a real need to re-focus our efforts on part-time and mature higher education.

Intelligence from a wide variety of part-time higher education providers indicates that the new system for part-time students has not been communicated very well. At the very least some sort of campaign to explain the loan system is needed.

Part-time students are, of course, much harder to reach than young people in schools, but a concerted effort to work between FE colleges and other HE institutions is necessary. Employer networks need to be exploited and support from government is also important to get the message across that learning as a part-timer is not only possible but there is help to undertake your study.

Perhaps more importantly we need to re-assert that higher education is vital for the future of our society and our economy. We need to demonstrate the value of such learning to employers and to society at large, not only for young full-time students but for part-timers as well. If 70% of the 2020 workforce are already adults then part-time HE study is even more important. We need clear policies which encourage employers and adults to undertake study and incentives and plans for institutions to ensure we have the skills our society needs for the future.

Universities UK has realised the seriousness of this issue and is leading a review of part-time and mature higher education. As a member of the working party I will be making these points very clearly.

Mary Stuart is Vice-Chancellor of Lincoln University.



Lesley Duffin

February 18th, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I wholly support this proposal. As someone who gained a BA, MA and teaching quals as a Part time Mature student whilst working and being self funded, I am aware of the benefits of a Higher Education but also of the problems facing people wanting to take this pathway to a better future. I’ll be following this closely.