This guest blog has been contributed by Bright Blue, a centre-right think tank that has today published an important new report on the decline in part-time study and what to do about it.

There has been a significant and worrying decline in the number of UK and other EU part-time entrants entering higher education as HEPI have recently documented in It’s the finance, stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do about it. The focus now needs to be on ways to reverse this decline. To do this, we must understand what barriers aspiring part-time higher education students face. This is the focus of Bright Blue’s report which is released today, entitled: Going part-time: understanding and reversing the decline in part-time higher education.

We polled a large representative sample of the English adult population (2,000) and found that 37% of all English adults with no experience of part-time higher education have considered, but ultimately not pursued, part-time higher education in the past five years. In order to tap into this latent demand, we must understand in detail the barriers that prevent these ‘considerers’ from ultimately enrolling on part-time courses. To do this, we polled 1,567 English adults with no experience of part-time higher education who have considered but ultimately not pursued it in the past five years.

We identify three broad types of barrier that considerers face: financial, practical and informational.

  • Financial barriers apply to considerers that are prevented from accessing part-time higher education because they cannot afford the tuition fees or living costs associated with part-time study, or are not willing to pay the price.
  • Practical barriers apply to considerers that are prevented from accessing part-time higher education because of the time or location of the course.
  • Informational barriers apply to considerers who do not have sufficient information about the potential benefits of part- time higher education study or the financial support available for it.

We asked considerers to identify the main reason for not pursuing their interest in part-time higher education . As can be seen in the chart below, financial barriers were the most frequently cited. We found that 54% of considerers identified financial constraints as the main reason for not pursuing their interest in part-time higher education , 34% identified practical barriers and 7% informational.

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We found evidence of three distinct types of financial barrier. Credit constraints apply to considerers who simply cannot afford the cost of part-time higher education. Support constraints apply to considerers who cannot afford part-time higher education because they cannot access forms of support (for example from government or an employer). Price constraints apply to considerers who are able to afford part-time higher education but do not believe that the cost of it represents good value for money, or who have higher priorities for their expenditure.

Within the financial barriers cited in the above chart, ‘could not afford it’ was the most frequently reported barrier with 24% of considerers citing it as the main reason for not pursuing part-time higher education . This suggests that credit constraints were the most important type of financial barrier. Of the support constraints, we found that 4% of considerers did not pursue their interest in part-time higher education because their employer would not provide any financial support and 2% because they were not eligible for a student loan. With regards to price constraints, we found that 3% of considerers did not pursue their interest further because they believed that part-time higher education was not worth the money and a further 11% did not pursue their interest because they had other costs which were more important to pay for.

We found that 34% of considerers reported practical barriers as the main reason for not pursuing part-time higher education . We identified three forms of practical barrier: an inability to juggle study with work, an inability to juggle study with family commitments and geographical constraints (the course being too far away). The most frequently cited practical barrier was simply a lack of time to organise it or considerers never getting around to it. 12% of considerers reported this to be the primary reason for not pursuing part-time higher education . The next most important barrier was being unable to juggle work and study which 11% of considerers cited. 7% of considerers reported that the course being at inconvenient time or place was the main reason for not pursuing part-time higher education . The course being at an inconvenient time or place could constitute either an inability to combine study with family commitments or the course being too far away (a geographical constraint).

We found that 7% of considerers cited informational barriers. We identified two different forms of informational barrier: a lack of quality information about the nature of and routes into part-time higher education , and a lack of information about the financial support that could be available. Part-time students have historically suffered from a lack of quality information. This is because part-time higher education students come from more diverse pathways and are more likely to not have accessed education recently compared to their full-time counterparts. They are therefore less likely to be able to rely on professional sources of information such as school careers services and UCAS. With regards to financial information, we found that 4% did not pursue their interest in part-time higher education because of a lack of information about the availability of finance and student loans. Moreover, we tested part-time students’ knowledge of part-time study with a variety of true or false statements. Worryingly, we found that a majority of considerers (79%) did not know or falsely believed they could access maintenance loans to support part-time higher education study. While more than one in three considerers did not know whether they could access student loans from the government for part-time higher education study.

Our polling evidences suggests that financial factors as the most significant barrier to part-time higher education study. However, we do find significant differences in the barriers reported by different considerers. For example, 56% of those from the lowest social grade (DE) reported ‘could not afford it’ as one of the three most important reasons for not pursuing part-time higher education compared to 39% of those from the highest social grade (AB).

Nonetheless, we believe that policymakers should focus their attention on addressing the financial barriers that considerers face in order to reverse this worrying decline in the number of part-time higher education entrants.