Last month, England's university access watchdog reported on the drastic decline in the number of students enrolled in part-time education. Since then, national newspapers, popular blogs and student associations have all been buzzing about the potential impact this decline will have.
While these numbers may have caused a media storm, they should come as no surprise given the steep rise in tuition fees put in place by the majority of universities in 2012. According to the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU), since these tuition hikes have come into effect, there has been a shocking 40% fall in applications for part-time study.
For educators, employers and students alike, this drop in registration should be concerning. Namely because part-time education is one of the leading ways in which a broader range of individuals, including mature students or those from less privileged backgrounds, can improve their career prospects.
According to Alan Milburn, the Government's independent reviewer on social mobility, "the necessity for an expanding higher education sector, including making university places available to more mature and part-time students, has never been greater." In order to meet this demand, the availability of, and interest in, part-time education needs to remain at the top of the agenda.
Director of the Office for Fair Access, Professor Les Ebdon, supported this notion when he said in his annual report that "universities and colleges have a role to play in addressing this [decline in part-time enrolment]. If higher education is truly to meet the needs of all those with the talent to benefit, it must be flexible enough to support those who choose to study later in life, whether part-time or full-time, as well as those who go straight to university from school."
As COO/CFO of London School of Marketing, the world's largest provider of marketing courses, I couldn't agree more. I believe it is essential for institutions such as ours to make educational opportunities accessible to our students, of all backgrounds and experience levels. After all, I have seen first-hand the benefits that part-time education can offer - among them, the fact that those studying for our part-time MBA programmes can do so while simultaneously building their careers.
Certainly, both part-time and full-time modes of study have advantages and disadvantages, which depend on the living conditions, lifestyle and needs that are unique to each student. However our recently commissioned white paper entitled "A comparison between studying for part-time and full-time MBAs", identifies three key benefits impacting the majority of our part-time students.
Simultaneous work and study: While working full-time and progressing within their careers, part-time students can still complete their degrees in a relatively short period of time. Most part-time students typically take one or two courses per quarter or semester and will complete their Masters in marketing within two and a half to five years.
Financial feasibility: Although fees will be similar for both modes of study, part-time students can pay their way gradually. Part-time students only pay for the courses taken per term, while many employers offer financial assistance that can help reduce the total cost of studying. Most part-time students can pay for their living expenses without extra help as they are still working full-time.
Flexible study options: In general, part-time courses offer more flexibility than full-time courses. Tutors understand that in some weeks, part-time students may not have much time for studying whereas in other weeks they will be able to devote extra hours.
Of course, London School of Marketing is not alone in citing the benefits of part-time education. According to the Part-time Matters campaign, which champions the benefits of part-time study and raises awareness of the challenges facing part-time education today, these benefits are wide faring, and range from economic to social. In fact, the Part-time Matters campaign reports that "part-time study helped [graduates] develop as a person (88 per cent), improve self-confidence (78 per cent) and increase their overall happiness (55 per cent)."
This may be why the UK is taking this drop in part-time registration seriously by putting their money where their mouth is. Financial support historically afforded to full-time students has now been made available to part-time students as well. For comprehensive information on available funding, the Educational Grants Service helps part-time students to find out what grants they might be able to receive.
But financial support is not enough. With part-time education clearly playing an important role within our society, institutions such as ours need to go further. This means making sure that part-time study options are more accessible than ever. We do this by offering evening, weekend and online modes of study, combined with flexible payment options and ongoing support. In short, to combat this decline in numbers, we need to help students to overcome the barriers to part-time study. As our whitepaper concludes, it's time for choice and flexibility to reach the market, ensuring that part-time study remains an "extremely competitive alternative to its full-time counterpart."