More urgency needed on flexible HE opportunities for adult learners

16 October 2013

Following today’s publication of a major review of part-time and higher education by Universities UK, NIACE is calling for greater urgency, ambition and specificity to revitalise flexible higher education for adults.

The Power of Part-Time – was commissioned by HE minister David Willetts following a dramatic 40% fall in demand for part-time higher education in England over two years – a concern raised with him by NIACE during this year’s Adult Learners’ Week.

The review, which cites NIACE evidence and analysis in several places, recognises that for too long, part-time and mature students have been an often overlooked part of the higher education system – although there were nearly half a million undergraduates studying part-time in 2011-12, most studying vocational subjects while in full-time employment.

In addition to a detailed assessment of the complex factors behind the fall of more than 100,000 students the review recommends that:

  1. Part-time and mature higher education should form an intrinsic part of the plans of higher education providers, government, funding councils and others.
  2. There needs to be an urgent push at all levels to help potential students and employers understand the value of and opportunities for part-time higher education.
  3. Universities and colleges should take bold steps to meet the needs of potential part-time students and improve the part-time student experience.
  4. Employer-focused part-time higher education which meets the needs of the local economy should be boosted.
  5. Further evidence and modelling is needed in order to support national policy decisions in England.

Commenting on the report, NIACE Chief Executive, David Hughes, said:

“The report makes a compelling case for the need to reverse the decline in part-time and mature student numbers in England and for a more flexible system of higher education. The benefits that this would bring to the economy and to social mobility are enormous which is why the recommendations seem curiously timid. We would like to see more specific, concrete calls for action by the government, the funding council and individual higher education providers. There is a need for much greater urgency and ambition.

“Only yesterday Sir Andrew Witty set out how universities have enormous potential to act as catalysts for economic growth and job creation. If they are to do this successfully, they must ensure that more people in work have access to higher education, to stay productive and to improve their skills to ensure competitiveness. This will require a much more entrepreneurial approach to part-time and flexible higher education for people who need to fit their learning around work and other responsibilities.

“The UK’s demographic profile means that it’s imperative for adults in the workforce to raise their skills to higher levels if we are to have a successful economy. Focussing only on the flow of young graduates is simply not going to be sufficient.”