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Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Unit, explores issues highlighted in a new a collection of essays published by HEPI examining the decline in part-time study and possible solutions to the problem.
When I stopped being the Special Adviser to the Universities and Science Minister to become the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), I was taken aside by a senior civil servant for an informal exit interview. After a general chat about the successes and failures of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I asked if there were any particular issues HEPI should look at. His one and only answer was the part-time question.
The collapse in part-time study is the single biggest problem facing higher education. Yet there has been a shortage of smart ideas for tackling it. So, in the latest HEPI paper, which has been kindly supported by The Open University, we bring together a range of experts to look at the problem.
Policymakers have sometimes been known to disparage part-time learning as a middle-class pursuit – language lessons for wealthy owners of holiday homes abroad – and as less relevant to the economy than other spending. So our first goal is simply to remind them that higher productivity and faster economic growth are dependent on people reskilling and upskilling. We cannot just rely on new graduates, school leavers and migrants to secure our future economic success. We need to rely on those who are already in the UK labour market too.
The second goal is to highlight the scale of the problem. The size of the decline depends upon on the start date you use and whether you are talking about all part-time students or a subset, like undergraduates or postgraduates. But, as a general rule of thumb, the number of new part-time learners has halved in the last five years. So not only are we reskilling and upskilling insufficient numbers of people; we are reskilling and upskilling fewer people than in the past.
The third goal is to propose some solutions. Our collection is entitled ‘It’s the finance, stupid!’ because the fall in part-time study worsened dramatically when the fee rise happened. The other parts of the UK, which did not increase fees in the same way, have not seen the same sort of decline.
So any solution needs to ease the financial burden on part-time learners in some way. As the chapter by Sorana Vieru of the National Union of Students says, ‘It’s all about the money, money, money’. This could mean easing the rules barring second-chance learners from getting financial support, or extending maintenance support to part-time students or encouraging employers to sponsor their staff to study. It could also mean changing the incentives for institutions, as full-time students are typically more financially attractive and less risky to recruit than part-time students. These ideas and more are discussed in our various chapters.
The problems are not just financial. The design of courses matters too. Some case studies in our collection show how institutions can help themselves by addressing this. The University of Northampton, for example, has had success with part-time postgraduate courses that satisfy the needs of local employers. They are now experimenting with credit unions too.
I am hopeful the Government will soon address the part-time challenge. After sorting out tuition fees, protecting research spending and promising a new postgraduate loan scheme, the needs of potential part-time learners must surely have reached the top of the Treasury’s list of urgent higher education priorities. If it has, they will find our chapters show how the decline in part-time learners could be reversed to the benefit of society as a whole. But ours is not the final word. We suspect and hope others will make their own proposals on tackling this important issue in the run-up to the spending review on 25th November.
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