Part-time student numbers tumble in England

A third of students at English universities study part-time, but numbers are falling and the decline accelerated between 2011 and 2013 – to the alarm of policy-makers who fear the downward spiral could harm the economic recovery.

Ten years ago, 47% of all entrants to higher education in England were on part-time courses. Today, that figure is down to 31%, with the biggest fall in undergraduate courses.

To find the causes and look for possible solutions, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, or HEFCE, commissioned research from Oxford Economics for a new report, Pressure From All Sides: Economic and policy influences on part-time higher education.

It suggests a catalogue of economic factors, policy changes and trends, particularly since 2008, which have hit part-time study harder in England than Scotland or Wales. In Northern Ireland, part-time student numbers have actually risen as the government promotes up-skilling, and there has been no change to loan and funding arrangements for part-time study.

OECD data also shows that in half of countries surveyed for higher education trends in 2010-11 there was growth in part-time enrolments.

Causes of the decline

What is causing the decline in England?

The demand for part-time study was adversely affected after the Equivalent or Lower Qualifications policy was introduced in 2008. This withdrew government financial support for students studying for a qualification at the same, or lower, level than they already had.

Even bigger changes came in 2012-13 when government-funded maintenance loans or grants for part-time study were withdrawn and replaced with fee loans.

At the same time HEFCE funding for teaching was reduced and focused on high-cost areas such as science and technology. Employer co-funded places were also phased out – all making part-time provision less attractive to both students and universities.

Trebling fees

But the key factor looks like being the trebling of fees for the 2012-13 intake.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the think-tank million+, which represents many modern universities with a tradition of offering part-time provision, told University World News that the trebling of fees for undergraduate courses and the withdrawal of the teaching grant for most programmes came at precisely the wrong time for part-time higher education.

“Just when employers and older prospective students were struggling with the impact of the economic downturn, the trebling of fees was a double whammy.

“Employers were much more reluctant to support their employees studying for courses which had increased significantly in cost while many students who might have funded themselves, had other priorities in terms of household expenditure.

“For its part the government was much more focused on the impact of higher fees on full-time students and withdrew funding which universities had received to help cover the additional costs of part-time provision,” said Tatlow.

“Ministers missed an opportunity to introduce a more flexible approach to funding and student support that is found in many countries and in the process undermined the part-time market.”

The impact of universities

The United Kingdom has a long tradition of part-time higher education and currently has the sixth largest part-time sector after the United States, China, Russia, Poland and Argentina, according to the OECD.

Some of the best-known providers have international reputations, such as The Open University, with 168,215 students when last counted by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency, or HESA, in 2012-13. That figure sounds enormous, but it was down from 208,710 the year before.

Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, is another centre of excellence for part-time study. It saw overall student numbers drop from 19,580 in 2011-12 to 16,460 in 2012-13 despite introducing new intensive evening courses, which enable students to gain a first degree in three years.

However, some of the modern universities have suffered the largest percentage falls in part-time numbers, particularly those in areas like the northeast of England, which has a jobless rate twice that of southern England.

Such regions are often heavily reliant on public sector employment and many jobs have been lost through the British government’s austerity drive.

Teesside University in Middlesbrough is highlighted by Oxford Economics as one the largest part-time higher education providers in England. It saw part-time undergraduate numbers drop from 15,075 to 8,475 between 2011-12 and 2012-13, according to HESA. In contrast, full-time undergraduate numbers remained stable, while postgraduates fell sharply for both full- and part-time study along with overseas recruitment.

The result has substantially changed the nature of the student population, according to the university governors’ 2012-13 report and financial statement.

In just a few years the student population has gone from being two-thirds part-time to 51% on full-time courses and 49% studying part-time, and the university is much more reliant on the traditional full-time first-degree student.

This trend is one of the things worrying HEFCE. Its Pressure From All Sides report and other recent research expresses concern at the loss of many ‘other undergraduate’, or OUG, courses below first-degree level.

These were seen as an excellent way to widen access and participation in higher education by non-traditional and mature students – many of whom went on to study at higher levels later.

What can be done?

The Teesside governors’ report suggests that the government should have done more to communicate the fees and funding changes for part-time study.

But others are more damning. In a blog for the Guardian’s Higher Education Network, Tricia King, pro vice-master of Birkbeck College, was scathing about the lack of action in response to the decline.

She said: “That the number of people coming to university to study part-time has almost halved since 2010 may be shocking, but it is not surprising. It has been clear for some time that part-time education is not a priority for this government. Those of us who work in part-time education do not feel optimistic about its future.

“Part-time study helps upskill and reskill the workforce, supports economic growth, promotes social mobility, helps build society and allows disadvantaged individuals to improve their lot. That is why the figures released by the Higher Education Funding Council are so dispiriting.

Birkbeck joined forces with The Open University, trade and student unions, Universities UK, and lobby groups like million+, University Alliance and Guild HE, to launch a campaign called “Part-Time Matters” – but King said there has been no policy response to support the part-time cause.

“The result is 120,000 fewer entrants to part-time undergraduate study in 2013-14 than there were in 2010-11 – a 46% decrease. And as demand declines, the supply side dries up. Universities for whom part-time is marginal business are, not surprisingly, closing programmes.”

King said: “At Birkbeck we no longer expect government policy change to stem the decline in part-time numbers. We've taken matters into our own hands and are now developing a new option for people who are thinking differently about university.”

Birkbeck had to adapt quickly after suffering a 45% downturn in enrolments on its traditional four-year, part-time, evening degrees after the new fees regime came in.

Spokeswoman Bryony Merritt told University World News that Birkbeck introduced a portfolio of intensive three-year evening undergraduate courses to complement its traditional part-time four-year evening courses.

“More than 2,000 students have enrolled on the three-year courses since 2010-11, demonstrating the appetite for flexible, non-traditional higher education models among today’s university students.”

Lessons from the rest of the world

So Birkbeck is blazing a new trail with its ‘hybrid’ flexible courses and the college has gone from having just 10 ‘full-time’ undergraduates to 2,000 in four years.

Should they be counted as studying full-time or part-time? Does it matter? And can England learn from other countries?


In Germany, which according to the OECD has the world’s 12th largest part-time sector, enrolments grew by nearly 10% between 2010 and 2011 to 183,637. Christian Tauch, head of education for the German Rectors’ Conference, said:

“We have difficulties defining what is meant by part-time study. We don’t have tuition fees and normally students are expected to complete their BA-studies in three, three-and-a-half or four years. But they can re-enrol as full-time students and it might take longer to complete their studies because they are working part-time.

“Only a minority of higher education institutions formally offer the possibility to enrol as a part-time student. But unofficially we have plenty of full-time students who are actually doing their studies part-time.”

Does it matter? It seems not as Germany sees lifelong learning as an important way to upskill the working population and tackle problems caused by the country’s shrinking population.

Previously German higher education was the preserve of the “bourgeois middle- and upper-classes, often with an academic background”, said Tauch.

“But now things are changing and universities, employers, the unions and politicians accept that higher education has to broaden its appeal to working class students and those coming from migrant backgrounds.

“We’re suffering from a lack of highly skilled labour and we need to tap into new pools of talent and I’m convinced we will see more part-time higher education and the opening up of higher education to more people from wider sections of society.”


Australia, which is 8th in the OECD international part-time table and saw part-time study grow by nearly 6% to 431,317 students between 2010 and 2011, is equally bemused by the clear cut distinction between full- and part-time higher education.

Professor Richard James, pro vice-chancellor for equity and student engagement at the University of Melbourne, said: “Part-time study has been something of a tradition in Australia, closely coupled to high proportions of mature-age students and the need for 'earning and learning'.

“National and institutional policies treat full-time and part-time students equally in the main part and lines between full-time and part-time study have blurred somewhat as work-study arrangements have sprung up.

“We can expect to see more arrangements of this kind. Of course, who can predict what the future will hold in Australia after the announcement of the deregulations of fee levels in January 2016, and the decision for income-contingent loans to be subject to real interest rates.

“Some experts are predicting that the fees in some institutions will triple. Certainly we can anticipate a doubling overall,” James told University World News.

“It's possible that more students will be encouraged to study part-time in order to keep earning during their studies to build a base for future loan repayment. On the other hand we might see a drift away from university study for the part-time students who are older and more likely to have dependents.

“The cost-benefit assessment on the merit of going to university is set to change dramatically.”