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It’s the finance, stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do about it

  • 29 October 2015

On Thursday, 29th October 2015, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) publishes It’s the finance, stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do about it.

This collection of essays explains the catastrophic fall in part-time student numbers, which is harming the economy and limiting people’s ability to transform their lives, and proposes a range of options for tackling the problem.

The contributors come from a wide range of organisations, including: Birkbeck / UCL Institute of Education; London Economics; the National Union of Students; NIACE, The Open University; the Workers’ Educational Association; and the universities of Cambridge, Northampton and Wolverhampton.

The authors attribute the decline in part-time students, among other things, to:

  • the sharp increase in tuition fees;
  • inflexible course design; and
  • a lack of good quality information, advice and guidance.

Among the solutions proposed are:

  • cost-effective changes to the funding rules, such as providing support for second-chance students and providing funding for students taking a module or two rather than a full course;
  • engaging employers in course delivery; and
  • giving Local Enterprise Partnerships a more formal role.

In his Foreword to the publication, Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI, writes:

“The collapse in part-time study is arguably the single biggest problem facing higher education at the moment. There are other challenges too, such as the future of the research environment, how to assess the quality of teaching and dealing with the effects of marketisation. But it is the fall in part-time learning that is probably the biggest black spot.

“The fall in part-time student numbers is clearly partly – possibly mainly – associated with the changes to student finance, hence the title of this collection. Part-time numbers have fallen more in England than other parts of the UK with lower (or no) fees, but it is not the sole cause. The decline began before the £9,000 fees were introduced. Any solution is likely to rest upon innovative delivery methods and other ways of improving access as much as relying on tweaks to the entitlement for financial support.

“If we succeed in reversing the decline in part-time study, the benefits to employers in terms of improved productivity and to the economy in terms of faster growth will be substantial. But the benefits to individuals and their families will be even more transformative.

“Lifelong learning is a concept that no one opposes, but it does not happen on its own and it needs to be supported.”

Peter Horrocks, the Vice-Chancellor of The Open University and the author of the opening chapter, said:

“For too long the focus of higher education policy has been on the traditional university route of school leavers heading into full time study.

“As this collection shows, part-time higher education has a key role to play in boosting productivity, contributing to economic growth and driving social mobility.

“Alongside our calls for the reversal of the policy to refuse loans for most second degrees, this paper is full of proposals which, if taken seriously, would help the Government deliver on its promise to support the most aspirational people in our society.”

Notes for Editors

  1. The collection has the following chapters:
  • Setting the Scene: Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, argues for funding to be made available once again to second-chance students who already hold a qualification and to students opting to take a module or two rather than a course leading to a specific qualification.
  • Putting part-time students at the heart of the system?: Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education at Birkbeck and UCL Institute of Education, looks at the 55 per cent decline in part-time undergraduate study since 2010/11 and calls on the Government to review ‘the very restrictive student loan eligibility criteria’.
  • The power of part-time: Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), notes that the decline of part-time learning is having a dramatic effect on the opportunities for women, in particular, and that fixing this would bring ‘a big economic reward.’
  • Understanding the part-time RAB charge: Gavan Conlon and Maike Halterbeck from London Economics, explain why the Government’s figure for the student loan write-offs from part-time students are too pessimistic and why tackling the part-time challenge is therefore cheaper and easier than feared.
  • It’s all about the money, money, money: Sorana Vieru, Vice-President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students, focuses on the relatively poor financial support on offer to part-time students, compared to both full-time students and students in other countries, and argues this is ‘a major issue for equal opportunities, social mobility and intergenerational fairness.’
  • Listen to part-time learners and smart policy will follow: John Butcher, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director for Access and Curriculum at The Open University, shows that many people believe their personal circumstances limit them to part-time study which can feel an inferior choice but which has substantial benefits, not only for the learners but also for their families.
  • The key to unlocking potential: David Hughes, Chief Executive of NIACE, considers how the rigidity of part-time courses fails to reflect the reality of learners’ lives and notes that ‘Modular, flexible and part time modes need to be more than simply smaller or slower versions of a full course.’
  • Helping employers help themselves: John Widdowson, Principal and Chief Executive of New College Durham and Chair of the Mixed Economy Group, argues that part-time fees need to be made more affordable to stimulate demand and to reflect ‘the benefits of greater contact between local businesses and communities, combined with the potential for widening participation.’
  • Local solutions for local issues, Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, focuses on the power of Local Economic Partnerships to deliver a better match between people’s skills and the needs of different areas and recommends that adult learning budgets are devolved to them.
  • Recovering from ELQ: A Cambridge view, Rebecca Lingwood, Former Director of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, Madingley Hall, explains how Cambridge has responded to the funding cuts of recent years through rationalisation and innovation, and she argues that the current ‘environment is not nearly as bad as might have been predicted a few years ago.’
  • Bucking the trend: Part-time Master’s students at the University of Northampton, Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton, and Nick Allen, Executive Officer at the University of Northampton, explain how their institution has bucked the decline in part-time study for postgraduates and push the benefits of working with local industry partners on bespoke programmes.
  1. This project was supported financially by The Open University, although editorial control was retained by HEPI.


  1. Sam Broadhead says:

    This supports my findings from my research into post-Access to HE students in art and design higher education that inflexible course design and poor quality information makes part-time study very difficult. Learning programmes need to be designed as part-time modes of study addressing those students particular needs; not just an adaptation of the full-time mode. Academic regulations should also be written with part-time study in mind, considering what is fair and reasonable for these students.

  2. Bobby IKAZOBOH says:

    Probably because part time students are older, wiser and have better real world experience. They know what a higher education is worth these days. Not a lot. Hence not worth their investment. They know its a “nice to have”. Not really that much of a productive asset. Younger chaps don’t know what they know. I address something similar in my coming book “University vs. Reality: Bridging the gap between university education and the real world.”

  3. Elena Zlatanova says:

    It is not just about the money; unfortunately, putting part-timers at the heart of higher education requires a huge paradigm shift and restructuring that unis are not prepared and/or willing to make. It would be interesting to see if the decline in part-time degrees correlates with increase in students going for online degrees, or perhaps fragmentation? Thank you for a very interesting post!

  4. Constance Blackwell says:

    `i repeat the proposal i made 5 years ago – and that the unions turned down at the Labour party – but i expand it now. That all post secondary educational expenses leading to work be considered a business expense
    and that the cost is paid back – by being deducted from the top of the income tax – this should apply to university students and of course to people doing part – time education = as well as those in the 40’s and 50’s that must reboot – to stay in the work force. Essentially the person in question would get his or her education free. One of the results might be the decline in suicides of middle aged men – another might be the retraining of underpaid house hold help into needed nursing jobs – if people are going to work until they are 70 it is very likely that retraining will have to be done. it is shocking the way repayment of student loans is defined – exactly the same as borrowing for a Gucci hand bag – President, Foundation for Intellectual History, retired

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