Universities, Part-Time Students and the Public Good

21/10/2013 13:42 BST | Updated 17/12/2013 10:12 GMT

Imagine if you had opened a newspaper this morning and read the following:

The number of people choosing to study full-time at university has plummeted by 40% in the past two years, according to a study published on Wednesday. The report, which was commissioned by ministers, says that reasons for the drop include a tough economic climate, but suggests that the government's decision to triple tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 has played a part. The report found that those now less likely to attend come from groups that are already under-represented in higher education.

A 40% drop in student numbers, just over a year after a new funding regime was introduced? A particularly bad effect on the most vulnerable groups in society? Surely, if you had read such a report, a crisis would have been identified; ministers might have resigned; a re-think would have been imminent...

Yet change 'full-time' to 'part-time', and the paragraph above did appear in newspapers earlier this week - and no heads have rolled. A report released by Universities UK, The power of part-time, found that there is a crisis in part-time provision in universities, with student numbers dropping by 40%, a loss of 105,000 students. This is in spite of ministers' assertions in 2010 that the new system would be 'fairer' for such students because (for the first time) they would be included in the mainstream loan and fees system.

This decline in numbers matters for the same reasons that it has gone under-reported. In 2011-12, part-time students made up 29% of the undergraduate population in the UK. Yet they are an almost-invisible part of the sector - and an extraordinarily un-homogenous one, ranging in age from 18 to over 80. They are also often people with patchy prior experience in education or who are socially vulnerable or excluded. And, because of this diversity, they rarely fit into the 'one size fits all' systems that now dominate the sector, from funding to course design, and they do not speak with a unified voice.

The Universities UK report has done an important job in starting to tell the story of part-time students. Yet as David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, said in response, the report 'doesn't necessarily bite the bullet and say the government should do X, Y and Z'.

It is worth noting that the fate of part-time students has sometimes anticipated later developments in the sector. When the decision was taken in 2007 to withdraw funding for those studying for an equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) than one they held (which decimated part-time provision), it was the first time government had withdrawn a teaching subsidy for particular undergraduates. Just three years later, almost all such subsidies were withdrawn.

Similarly, the drop in part-time numbers now may signal wider problems ahead. Potential part-time students are voting with their feet partly because they are often people who already know about the realities of work and debt. Many have baulked at the higher fees because their personal circumstances make such enormous loans look untenable. They may be acknowledging much larger problems within the system, not all of which are currently visible. Will there be sufficient jobs for the swathes of graduates, with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, who will graduate in 2015? How will the debt affect the shape of their careers, their ability to buy a home, and their other life choices?

The newspaper report with which I began this post may not be a fiction - it could be a prophecy. If substantial problems emerge, we may yet see a significant drop in full-time student numbers too over the coming decades.

Part-time study has also often been a source of innovation and counter-cultural thought - as the presence of figures in its past such as Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and E.P. Thompson reminds us - and it has the potential to play this role again.

Eric Thomas, chair of Universities UK (and Vice Chancellor at my university, Bristol) noted at the launch that his committee had considered whether part-time study ought, in future, to be offered principally by bespoke providers such as Birkbeck and the Open University. They rejected this idea, because most part-time mature students enrol at an institution in their local area. Thomas asserted that all universities thus have a role to play in providing part-time courses, 'for the public good'.

This was a welcome declaration. Yet there are no funding incentives for universities to fulfil this kind of role. Nor are they sufficiently private and autonomous as institutions to generate a self-interested notion of corporate responsibility. In reality, part-time courses look like a bad investment for universities, most of which are risk-averse. Part-time students are much more likely to drop out and less likely to repay the whole of their loan.

So what is to be done? Russell Group universities - which have largely abandoned part-time provision - could take a lead, at a relatively low cost, by offering a limited number of free places to part-time students with no prior experience of higher education.

As numerous speakers at the Universities UK launch noted, it would also make economic sense for the government to subsidise degrees, in some form, for all part-time students. Such talk sounds fanciful in the current climate. But much part-time study, as Claire Callender (an expert in the field) noted, yields a high social return and a small private one. For example, teachers, nurses, librarians and others give much to society yet receive a relatively low salary. There will be a serious problem if the supply of graduates pursuing such careers dries up.

Stefan Collini has made a powerful case this week that the privatisation of universities is under way, at a high cost. Against that backdrop, Eric Thomas is right. The provision of part-time study is a space in which vice-chancellors and politicians can think creatively - and re-assert the social, economic and moral case for universities acting for the public good.