Today's report from London Economics sheds further light on the plight of aspiring part-time students in the UK.
The report, entitled, 'How is the demand for part-time higher education affected by changing economic conditions?' has been commissioned by academic partners London South Bank University (LSBU), The Open University and Birkbeck University.
The report highlights that whilst for most prospective full time learners the student loan system mitigates the issue of tuition fees, this is not the case for aspiring part-time students who are badly failed by the current regime.
The report shows that the drop in part-time students has been far greater than the current economic conditions in the UK would account for. It also identifies that, despite the general growth in full-time student numbers, there remains a vast group eligible for part-time study, a group of mostly mature students who, given access to a more sympathetic funding model, would take the opportunity to enhance their own social mobility and participate in the upskilling of the UK workforce.
Part-time study is a vital part of a diverse HE system. It widens participation and increases social mobility, providing choice to individuals who may not have had the opportunity to attend university straight out of school and who now require the flexibility to continue their education part-time whilst meeting work and family commitments.
Between 2010 and 2016 the number of students in England engaged in part-time undergraduate study collapsed, dropping by 60%. This has a negative impact on our economic competitiveness. Part-time study, whether through distance learning, evening study or employer sponsorship, allows individuals to reskill or upskill, helping to address the UK's skill and productivity gaps. The UK has the highest level of employment since 1975 but there are also more job vacancies than ever previously recorded, especially in STEM occupations.
The decline in part-time student number accelerated with the introduction of £9,000 tuition fees in 2012. Whilst student loans are available, many potential part time learners are older, and taking on this additional debt can be impractical for those with considerable existing family and financial commitments.
There has been significant recent interest in revisiting the existing student tuition fee and loans system. However, this debate has neglected part-time education and the role that higher fees have played in reducing part-time student numbers. Whatever the merits of the current system for full time students, it is evident that in the case of part-time students the system is almost entirely broken. We need to look at a range of options to mitigate the negative effects; perhaps delaying the loan repayments of part-time learners, allowing them to gain the benefits of undertaking more highly qualified and better remunerated work before they are hit by the additional costs of repayment.
The question of funding for part-time study needs to be at the centre of any debate on student fees and loans and it must be an explicit consideration in the Government's proposed review of tertiary education funding.