Can dramatic decline in part-time students be reversed?

The policy focus around part-time higher education in England needs to shift so that adult learners are considered within the context of their busy lives, acknowledging their previous experiences and perceptions of education, according to a new paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute or HEPI.

Currently not enough is being done by institutions to address access or attainment gaps for part-time students, the report says.

It recommends that policy-makers consider “more explicit carrots and sticks”, starting with financial rewards for institutions to take on more part-time students and support them to achieve successful outcomes.

Best practice in engaging and supporting part-time and mature learners could be identified by the Office for Students, the higher education regulator, and modelled for the sector, the paper says.

There are 193,000 part-time undergraduate students in England, but the number has fallen dramatically over the past decade or so. So while 84,000 students started a part-time undergraduate course in 2017-18, this is 60% fewer than in 2011-12.

It is generally agreed that the fall has resulted principally from two policy changes. The first was a regulatory change tightening access to funding for Equivalent or Lower Qualifications (2008-09), which prevented public funding for any course at the same level or below an award that a student already held. The second was the tripling in the tuition fee cap in 2012, which disproportionately affected older and part-time students.

“For adult learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, the higher education sector has appeared increasingly exclusive and less flexible. In contrast to regular headlines, participation overall has narrowed,” the HEPI paper, Unheard: The voices of part-time adult learners, says.

The paper aims to promote a re-think about the decline in part-time higher education in England. Most part-time learners are mature students, and the paper says the dramatic drop in part-time student numbers can be viewed as a proxy for the retreat of older learners from higher education.

Despite the persuasiveness of the quantitative data cited in a succession of reports, policy-makers have yet to reverse the decline, the report notes.

Disproportionately disadvantaged

The author of the paper, Dr John Butcher, who has responsibility for access at the Open University, said: “The collapse in part-time learning means individuals lose out and universities are less interesting places. Official policies like the National Student Survey and widening participation initiatives are part of the problem because they tend to play down or even ignore part-time learners.

“Part-time students are disproportionately likely to come from parts of society traditionally under-represented in higher education. Ministerial statements about there being record numbers of students ignore part-time learners. When they are included, a big drop in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is revealed.”

The loss in part-time numbers equates to 17% fewer students from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing higher education, the paper says.

Butcher said a new approach is overdue, especially in England which lags behind other parts of the United Kingdom in protecting part-time education. “Otherwise, part-time students will continue to be peripheral, feeling like tourists passing through higher education but knowing they do not really belong.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “Recent reforms to higher education are meant to have introduced a student-centred system. But people who want, or need, to study part-time have less choice than they did. The removal of some public funding in 2008, the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 and the withdrawal of some courses have had a terrible combined impact.

“We are good at producing data in higher education, but we are sometimes less good at listening to the voices of learners, which can teach us so much. Boosting part-time study would help fill skills shortages and help the life chances of individuals. If we change direction, we can have a clear win-win.”

Authentic voices

The Independent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, known as the Augar review, argues for flexible learning, bridging courses and greater financial support for lifelong learning.

Politicians of all major parties recognise the importance of the need to support flexible access to part-time learning, the HEPI paper says. At the 2019 General Election, the Labour Party pledged to offer every adult the right to six years of free study, the Liberal Democrats proposed a ‘Skills Wallet’ of £10,000 (US$13,000) to spend on education and training over a period of 30 years, and the Conservatives pledged a ‘new National Skills Fund’ of £600 million annually, with an ambition to establish a ‘Right to Retrain’.

The HEPI paper uses little seen qualitative information from part-time adult learners interviewed for four research projects. The authentic voices identify policy solutions to the seemingly intractable problem of part-time study decline.

The paper ends with a series of policy recommendations aimed at making policy more part-time aware and responsive.

These include institutions personalising support for part-time students to meet their individual needs and the government introducing a lifelong learning loan allowance that could also be used for distance learning and-or aligning a version of the maintenance grant offered in the Celtic nations of the UK for the most disadvantaged part-time students.

Other measures recommended include:

  • • Offering great flexibility in a step-on, step-off system to give adult learners the possibility of portability, enabling lengthy study breaks to enable completion where needed, thus reducing the drop-out rate.

  • • Ending the Equivalent or Lower Qualification barrier would provide more personalised opportunities to complete higher education and to meet changing employability needs.

  • • Making accelerated part-time study programmes subject to the same fee caps as accelerated full-time study.

The paper also notes that “the metrics used in the Teaching Excellence Framework appear to be designed solely with full-time students in mind, suggesting notions of excellence in higher education are inimical to part-time study”.

It says the language of national policy needs to be refreshed to avoid defaulting assumptions that all higher education students are full time and that all learners start their studies at age 18-19.

“Part-time adult students continue to be ‘othered’ by policy-makers, and as a result extinction beckons for them in many universities,” the paper says.

“There is a real danger that part-time learners are increasingly perceived via a ‘deficit’ lens – needing to be bent to fit institutional structures not designed with them in mind. Instead, policy needs to drive institutions to change, to respond positively to diverse needs and to value part-time study opportunities,” the paper concludes.