HEFCE report must lead to action on part-time HE

29 April 2014

NIACE is optimistic that a new HEFCE report published today will lead to concerted action to address the dramatic decline in part-time higher education in England.

The new report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) – Pressure from all sides – argues that a combination of economic factors, including falling public sector employment and changes to public policy, are responsible for the dramatic decline of 46% in part-time student numbers since 2010.

As HEFCE’s most recent figures indicate, entrants to part-time undergraduate courses other than first degrees – in the main, foundation degrees, HNDs and HNCs – make up the majority of the decline, though there has also been a significant drop in part-time students taking first degrees.

David Hughes, NIACE Chief Executive and a member of the HEFCE Widening Participation Advisory Committee, said:

“The decline in part-time study is bad news indeed for the economy and for adults who want to improve their career prospects. We need people in the labour market as well as those entering it to be able to improve their skills and knowledge through flexible learning opportunities at all levels.

“Employers are already experiencing shortages in skilled people at higher levels across the economy, so rather than seeing a decline in part-time numbers we need to be seeing growth. As the economy grows over the coming years the skills shortages and gaps will increase, so urgent action is required to develop the opportunities at local levels as well as stimulating the demand for flexible and relevant higher level skills.

“There is a clear threat to the overall coherence of learning opportunities for adults, with the number of people learning at Level 3 and 4 in further education also significantly lower than in recent years.

“The report highlights the damage done by policy changes such as the withdrawal of funding for ELQ students and also points out the absence of incentives for providers to flex their offer in favour of part-time students.

“The solution to this is not simple because it requires policy changes and funding action, as well as institutions to respond creatively. More than anything we need to stimulate the demand from individuals and employers such that policy and supply flexes and responds. Above all, though, the report highlights just how far we are from the kind of diverse, flexible, creative and collaborative higher education system that is needed to meet the needs of a growing economy and an ageing population.”