Top universities shun part-time students – Report

England’s elite universities are tending to back away from part-time degree courses in favour of attracting 'high-achieving' full-time students they can recruit outside controls on numbers, the authoritative Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, concludes in a report published on Thursday.

In a new assessment of the impact on student demand of changes in student support and higher tuition fees introduced in 2012 by the coalition government, HEPI concludes that there is “prima facie evidence” that the changes led to a reduction in demand or supply or both, leading to fewer part-time entrants to higher education.

The government’s 2012 White Paper introduced loans for part-time study, claiming that up to around 175,000 part-time students could benefit from an entitlement to tuition fee loans.

As of 31 August this year, 30,800 part-time students had their tuition for the past academic year paid for by the Student Loan Company. But HEPI says it is so far unclear what this figure is as a proportion of entrants eligible for loans.

Considering all the changes to financial support for part-time students, HEPI says that only a minority of part-time students were eligible for loans, and that for those who are eligible, the benefits of access to loans may be outweighed by the likely increase in fees.

'Peripheral business'

The report warns of a danger that “universities will scale down what they treat as a peripheral business – that is, mature and particularly mature part-time recruitment – to focus on their ‘core’ business of teaching young students on full-time courses”.

HEPI suggests that, for most institutions, part-time study represents a small proportion of their undergraduate provision and that they therefore may adopt a variety of responses given the new market in which they now operate.

“Part-time provision may no longer be attractive to some institutions confident of attracting 'high-achieving' students outside the controls,” HEPI claims. “This appears to be the case with some Russell Group institutions.”

It adds: “Between 2011-12 and 2012-13 the number of part-time entrants has fallen; the provision of loans to a minority of part-time students has not been sufficient to stop this decline. But it is uncertain to what extent the increase in fees has contributed to the further decline in part-time entrant numbers.”

The number of entrants to part-time degree courses in England, excluding the Open University, fell by 32% between 2011-12 and 2012-13.

But the decline was even steeper in the 24 leading Russell Group universities, even though they started from a lower base.

Less access or more diversity?

“Given the importance of part-time provision to disadvantaged students, the withdrawal of part-time undergraduate courses seriously undermines the contribution of Russell Group institutions to widening participation and fair access, as well as representing a marked reduction in their commitment to continuing education,” the report says.

It adds: “A more benign interpretation is that it represents a step on the route towards greater diversity in the sector, with different institutions focusing on the areas where they have clear strengths and leaving to others those areas that they regard as peripheral to their core missions.

"This interpretation is more defensible for those universities that are close to others offering part-time opportunities, less so where there are few alternatives within easy reach.”

HEPI also draws attention to a decline in application rates for mature applicants to full-time courses and says this is probably connected with fee increases.

“It is necessary to ensure part-time places are available and that potential students are not discouraged.

“The evidence suggests that the idea of a wider social obligation to provide part-time courses at affordable cost risks being lost, possibly because holding down fees might make justifying the full-time fees more difficult.”

Option suggested

One option HEPI puts forward is that instead of an extension of fee loans or even the introduction of maintenance loans, the government could explore whether standards and quality could be maintained and fees reduced with little or no net additional public expenditure.

“It may be possible in future to reduce fees substantially and the incentive to do so may exist in the form of competition from providers using new technological developments. We may see the sharp division between traditional and the new ‘high tech’ provision soften, which could lead to a reduction in tuition fees.”

HEPI concedes that the impact of the post-2012 regime on young full-time undergraduate application rates had been smaller than some have suggested.