by Claire Callender

Part-time student numbers are plummeting – here’s why

Last year alone the number declined by eight per cent. This is not just bad news for the individuals who miss out; society at large will be the poorer, argues Claire Callender in Prospect Magazine.

Tuition fees were in the headlines again recently, thanks to Labour’s pledge to abolish them in the run-up to 8 June. But nearly all the stories grabbing the spotlight are about young full-time students. Issues about part-time students and the challenges they face often go unnoticed. This is a big problem, for they are severe.

Within the last six years, the number of part-time undergraduates starting a degree at an English university has fallen by 61 per cent. Last year alone the numbers declined by over 8 per cent—the seventh successive year there has been a drop—and this academic year part-timers made up only 20 per cent of all undergraduate entrants. The fall has been greatest among older students, those wanting to do “bite size” courses, and those with low-level entry qualifications—all typically “widening participation” candidates.

Make no mistake: this is a crisis. Part-time study is important for universities because it can provide a more flexible, diverse higher education system while broadening access. And it is crucial to society at large: it can enhance social mobility, increase productivity and drive growth. Skills development via part-time study helps employers too. It minimises absence from work, with individuals investing their own time and money in work-related study.

Crucially, it is vital to the individuals who undertake it, who want to develop, maintain and improve their existing skills. It can serve as a lifeline for people who cannot afford to give up work to study full-time, or who look after their children during the day—perhaps while a partner is at work.

Several factors have contributed to the decline. Most important are the infamous 2012/13 reforms of student funding, undertaken by the coalition government. The changes to part-time funding aimed to open up access to higher education, make it more affordable, and encourage more people to study part-time. They have had the opposite effect.

The 2012/13 policy changes withdrew most of the public funds universities received for teaching. This lost income was replaced by higher tuition fees, capped at £6,750 a year for part-time courses (£9,000 for full-time courses). This was, of course, highly controversial at the time. Students can take out government-funded loans to pay for their higher fees. Part-time Bachelor degree students begin repaying their loans four years after starting their course and when earning above £21,000. They pay 9 per cent of their income over £21,000, with any outstanding debt written off after 30 years. For many who are working this means starting to repay their loans while still studying and before they have got their degree, unlike most full-time students who repay their loans after they have graduated.

There are two problems with the loans for part-time students. First, the eligibility criteria are very restrictive. The vast majority of potential part-time undergraduates do not qualify, mostly because they already have a higher education qualification. Instead, they have to pay upfront and out of their own pocket. Research repeatedly demonstrates that upfront fees, and fee increases in general, can lower participation, particularly among students from poorer backgrounds, unless accompanied by equivalent increases in student financial support.

The narrow criteria are based on two flawed assumptions: that employers often pay their employees’ fees, and that because most part-time students are employed, they can afford high fees anyway. But between 2010–11 and 2012–13, the number of part-time undergraduate students receiving financial support from their employers fell by 44 per cent.

The second problem is that the terms and conditions are unattractive to those who are eligible for the loans. The government anticipated that a third of part-time students would take one out, but only a fifth have done so. Loans are not perceived as an adequate safeguard against the risks of part-time study.

So it has become unaffordable. Part-time students who are older than full-time students and already have substantial financial commitments are far more sensitive to fee increases than their younger, full-time peers. Their inability to pay higher fees has been exacerbated by wider economic factors too. Their non-essential spending, including spending on study, is likely to be squeezed in times of economic hardship. Taking out a loan and having to pay an additional 9 per cent of their income in repayments, or shelling out at least £5,000 a year, is a big ask when the returns on that investment are unknown.

In fact, evidence from international studies on the question of whether part-time students tend to earn their money back through higher earnings is mixed. Yet the justification for student loans is predicated on the financial returns of higher education for individuals and the belief that those who benefit should pay. So loans may be the wrong policy instrument here.

The drop in demand for part-time undergraduate study has also led to a fall in supply, especially among research-intensive universities. Demand in the part-time undergraduate market is more difficult to predict than in the full-time market. There are no incentives for universities to provide more costly and risky part-time courses especially when, with the lifting of the cap on student numbers, they can fill all their places with full-time students.

Of the part-time courses which have been closed, those below the Bachelor degree level—typically vocational and short courses—have been particularly badly hit. This restricts opportunities for those wanting to test the higher education waters and for those wanting to take work-related courses to re-skill or upskill. And because of work and family commitments, part-time students are less mobile than full-time students. So when such courses close, their access to higher education may close too.

There has been a market failure. Any government committed to skilling up its workforce, opening access and widening participation will need to take some drastic action to avert the demise of the part-time undergraduate sector. Maybe Labour’s election pledge to abolish tuition fees was the right policy.