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Part-time students deserve more than part-time policy

  • 26 May 2015
  • By Nicholas Robinson

This piece by Nicholas Robinson, a researcher at HEPI who grew up and went to university in Australia, is the second in a series comparing the UK and Australian higher education systems. The first covered student maintenance and was published in Times Higher Education on May 7 2015.

The number of students studying part-time in the UK has been falling since even before tuition fees were raised. Why, when full-time student numbers have confounded expectations and remained healthy since the policy change, are part-timers the exception? The Australian experience gives some clues.

At first glance the two countries enrol similar numbers of part-time students. Last year, 22% of domestic undergraduate students at UK higher education providers were studying part-time compared with 23% in Australia (see uCube). Down Under, domestic part-time undergraduate numbers in 2013 went up faster than full-time numbers (6.5% verses 5.5%), but in the UK they fell by 8% in 2013/14 (and 46% over the previous three years) while full-timers rose by 1%. The relative part-time decline is mainly for undergraduates. Postgraduate part-time numbers are flat and while the number of students doing a part-time foundation degree dropped 18%, there was an equal drop in the proportion doing one full-time.

There are a number of factors that affect demand for part-time study. One is the availability of tuition loans. Although the UK has followed Australia in ensuring that part-time students can take out loans, British students are unable to borrow their tuition fee for a second degree. The UK government estimated in 2013 that two-thirds of part-time students aren’t eligible for a loan. Most part-time prospective students are older with families and mortgages, and more than half have prior experience of higher education. It is clear that many fitting this profile couldn’t afford to pay thousands of pounds a year upfront. They wouldn’t have to in Australia. There, students can take out virtually unlimited government loans for undergraduate, postgraduate and approved non-Bachelor courses even after they have completed a first degree. Whether this is fiscally responsible is another question.

The job market in the UK over the past five years is another explanation for the part-time decline. According to the UCL Institute of Education, four out of five part-time undergraduate students are employed, usually full-time, in higher-level services or the public sector. Austerity and uncertainty has forced many employers to cut back on investment in human capital, particularly as the cost is now so much higher. When undergraduate fees increased in 2012, the number of students entering higher education with funding from their work fell by 35%. The decision to study part-time in Australia is more detached from the economy and fees as students don’t need to rely on their employers to contribute towards their tuition when they can easily get a loan.

The final factor is maintenance. Memorably, Birkbeck College in London re-engineered many of its traditional night class courses primarily to ensure students could be classified as full-time. This meant they could access maintenance and led to a 308% rise in enrolments from 2011-13. Even a disadvantaged student studying part-time in the UK is assumed to be employed and so is dependent on the goodwill of their institution to provide any further support for living costs – neither a government maintenance grant nor loan are available to them. The Australian rules are similar but slightly looser. A student can still receive maintenance (Youth Allowance) if their load is 75% of full-time. If it is below this, they are still eligible for Youth Allowance, but as a jobseeker, and must enter onto an employment pathway plan and complete activities to make up a full load.

Using Australia as a (loose) counterfactual seems to confirm that the main causes of the fall in part-time enrolments are high fees and the inaccessibility of funding – from employers or government – to pay for them. Research in 2011 suggests that the financial returns experienced by graduates of part-time courses are lower than those from full-time study. So it is no surprise that people who largely already have debt and commitments are re-thinking going back. Should policymakers subsidise them to do so? Undoubtedly, there are some part-time students who are fulfilling a private interest, and therefore warrant little public support. But as a 2013 HEPI report highlighted, part-time study is also the key way to re-skill as the economy transforms, and a second-chance for those who missed out on higher learning the first time round. Policymakers should not leave these aspirants high and dry despite the fiscal challenge.

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