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Sharp decline in part-time study will damage UK economy, report warns

A “perfect storm” of factors that have hit household budgets and incentives for mature people to study has brought about a sharp drop in the number of part-time undergraduates, a national investigation has concluded.

Following a decade of slow decline, part-time student numbers fell by 40 per cent in two years from 2010-11 to 2012-13, equivalent to 105,000 fewer students, a report on the findings from Universities UK says. The trend has been more marked among women and mature learners, and indications are that numbers will continue to fall at the same rate this year.

A study by UUK involving a survey and evidence gathered from employers found a high degree of consenses on the key factors that have brought about the changes.

The factors include changes in the higher education funding system, including the increase in tuition fees in England; the current economic climate restricting employer support for further study; changing pathways into higher education; and changing demographics.

The rise of apprenticeships and growth in the number of private providers of part-time higher education including a shift to online learning will also have played a part, but are difficult to quantify.

A report on the findings, The Power of Part-Time,  says finance is a “major obstacle” to part-time study, exacerbated by the new funding regime and increases in tuition fees last year, particularly as most part-time students are ineligible for a fee loan.

Information about part-time study opportunities is patchy, and many employers and potential students are not sufficiently aware of the value of part-time higher education and often do not understand the study and financial options.

Restrictions on loans and funding council support to those doing qualifications higher than those they already have is further hampering participation.

The report warns that the decline in part-time study is of serious concern because the UK relies heavily on it to up-skill its working population.

In an introduction Professor Sir Eric Thomas, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol who chaired the review, says: “We have found concerns that the market is skewed by a national policy system, in England in particular, designed primarily around young full-time undergraduates, into which the provision is fitted. The end result is that the part-time market risks operating in neither the interests of students, employers nor the economy.”

The report recommends there should be an “urgent push” nationally and locally to help employers and potential students understand the value and opportunities for part-time study. Government, funding councils, and institutions should consider the needs of part-time and mature students “as an intrinsic part of their thinking”, taking “bold steps” to meet them. Measure should be introduced to boost employer-focussed part-time higher education, and further evidence should be gathered to guide national policy decisions in support of part-time study.

A report on another study published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills says employers find that staff studying for part-time degrees are more proactive and willing to take on demanding responsibilities. Employers also reported a positive impact on profitability when staff were studying part-time. 


Get the full picture from HEi-know: Briefing Report 102