Enrolment in part-time studies has dropped dramatically in the last few years, partly due to the government raising the cap on tuition fees in 2010. Guy Collender argues that, by providing opportunities for the workforce to re-train and upgrade skills, this form of studying is valuable to individuals and society. We must therefore act urgently to stem the tide.
Part-time higher education is immensely valuable to the economy, employers, society and individuals, yet its future is increasingly in jeopardy. Recent research emphasises how part-time study updates and improves much-needed skills and boosts social mobility, but the headline enrolment figures make for sober reading.
The number of new part-time undergraduate students has plummeted by 40 per cent from 2010-11 to 2012-13, according to figures released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Similarly, the number of students starting part-time postgraduate taught courses fell significantly by 27 per cent during the same period. The challenge now is to try and reverse this worrying trend before it is too late.
An alliance of universities, businesses and unions responded on 20 May during Adult Learners’ Week by launching the #PartTimeMatters campaign to champion part-time study and its benefits, and highlight the fact that urgent action is needed to safeguard the unique opportunities offered by studying in this way. The cause is led by a range of organisations, including the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, Universities UK, Birkbeck (University of London), The Open University, the CBI, the NUS. The campaign has gained cross-party support in Parliament with an Early Day Motion signed by 37 MPs and backing from Baroness Joan Bakewell, President of Birkbeck. Part-time students are also sharing their university experiences online, including via Twitter.
Let’s continue with the importance of part-time study and its widespread, but often overlooked, benefits. The reality of part-time provision and the research about its advantages are certainly compelling. More than 775,000 students – nearly one-third of all students – study part-time (2011-12 HESA figures), so this is not a marginal issue. The skills and knowledge they gain from their studies enable them to contribute more to the economy and society. A finding from a paper published last year by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills neatly summarises why employers are so supportive: “Employers value part-time study as a good model to develop work-readiness in graduates and in providing existing employees with the skills and knowledge that can improve productivity and efficiency.”
Part-time study offers opportunities for the workforce to re-train and upgrade skills – both prerequisites for success in an increasingly competitive and flexible global knowledge economy. With more than 70 per cent of the 2020 working age population having already left compulsory education, the Government-commissioned Leitch Review of Skills emphasised the importance of providing training and education opportunities for the workforce. It said: “The UK cannot rely solely on improving the skills of young people to deliver a worldclass skills base in 2020 – those already in the labour market must have the opportunity to improve their skills as the global economy restructures.” In University challenge: How higher education can advance social mobility , Alan Milburn – the Government’s independent reviewer on social mobility – reiterates this argument. As emerging economies grow and the demand for highly-skilled and graduate-level jobs increases worldwide, the necessity for an expanding higher education sector, including making university places available to more mature and part-time students, has “never been greater.”
And evidence also shows that part-time study is very beneficial at an individual level. Research findings from Futuretrack: part-time students by Professor Claire Callender, of Birkbeck, and David Wilkinson, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, include:
- Levels of employment stability are particularly high for part-time students with 81 per cent working throughout their studies and two years later
- 29 per cent of students were awarded a pay increase, and 28 per cent received a promotion while they were studying part-time
- Graduates said part-time study helped them develop as a person (88 per cent), improve self-confidence (78 per cent) and increase their overall happiness (55 per cent)
The fear is that these positive outcomes are now being denied to thousands of adults as they fail to sign-up for part-time courses following the 2012 higher education reforms. The increase in undergraduate tuition fees for both part-time and full-time courses – a result of the government raising the cap on tuition fees while withdrawing substantial funding from universities – has clearly deterred many potential students. But the failure of government and the wider higher education sector to communicate effectively the new system of fees and loans and counter negative stories about increased tuition fees has also been at fault. From last autumn, for the first time ever, part-time students did not have to pay their fees upfront and were eligible for student loans (provided they were studying an undergraduate qualification, were studying at this level for the first time and were UK/EU citizens).
The #PartTimeMatters campaign faces all these difficulties and more as it champions part-time study and pursues its goal of re-balancing the higher education sector to recognise the importance of part-time study. One of the positive signs comes from the Welsh government, which has decided not to follow the English example. Instead of raising fees, it plans to fund part-time provision (thereby allowing institutions to maintain current fees) at the same time as introducing loans for part-time students – an ideal solution to boost part-time study and its benefits.
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Guy Collender is Communications Manager at Birkbeck, University of London