This blog was kindly contributed by Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education at both Birkbeck University of London and UCL, Institute of Education where she is Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education.
Part-time undergraduate higher education study helps transform lives and drive economies. It is central to lifelong learning, the national skills strategy, re-skilling and upskilling the workforce and for widening participation and social mobility. All these benefits are acknowledged in the Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding – the Augar Report.
Decline of part-time students
Yet, there has been very dramatic decline in the number of part-time undergraduate entrants living in England and studying at UK universities, especially since the 2012 student funding reforms. Since 2010, part-time enrolments have plummeted by over 70%. By contrast, full-time enrolments have largely weathered the storm and continue to rise. By 2018/19, less than one in six of all undergraduates studied part-time compared to just under a half in 2003/4.
Contrary to much political rhetoric, the total number of undergraduates has fallen since 2010 because of the collapse in part-time entrants.
The fall in part-time undergraduates has not been uniform across the sector. Between 2010 and 2015 the falls were greatest among: university rather than Further Education colleges students; Open University students compared with those attending other universities (63% compared with 45%); students over the age of 35; students pursuing sub-degree qualifications rather than degrees (57% compared with 33%); and students on low intensity courses.
The part-time sector is not just smaller, it is now different. The nature, breadth and flexibility of part-time provision have changed as a result of the 2012 reforms as has the characteristics of part-time students.
2012 student funding reforms
The 2012 student funding reforms triggered the sharp decline in part-time undergraduate entrants and the changes in provision. They increased part-time tuition fees to £6,750 to be repaid, for the first time, via student loans. These loans were designed to protect students from the fee rises and to safeguard access but have proved largely ineffective.
Only a minority of part-time students are eligible for loans. By 2015, less than half qualified for loans because the eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Most are ineligible because they are not studying more than 25% of a full-time equivalent course. Others are disqualified because they are aiming for a qualification that is not at an equivalent or lower level than the qualification (ELQ) they already hold, or because they are not following a full course for a specified qualification aim. This leaves such students to pay for their fees upfront and out of their own pocket.
Yet amongst those eligible for loans, they have proved unpopular. The take-up rate of tuition fee loans among part-time students is 59% compared to 94% among full-time students. This low take-up is primarily because part-time students are more risk and debt averse than their younger full-time peers, as they are older, working, and already have financially commitments. Paying an additional 9% in marginal tax in loan repayments is a big ask for an uncertain return.
Consequently, the 2012 reforms are largely responsible for the decline of part-time study.
The Augar Report
To what extent will the Augar Report’s recommendations solve the problems created by the 2012 reforms and halt the decline in part-time study? There is much to praise in this thoughtful report. It values and promotes lifelong learning as suggested by the following recommendations:
- The government should introduce a single lifelong learning loan allowance for tuition loans at Levels 4, 5 and 6, for those aged over 18.
- Learners should be able to access student finance for tuition fee and maintenance support for modules of credit-based Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications.
- ELQ rules should be scrapped for those taking out loans for Levels 4, 5 and 6.
Clearly, these proposals seek to address the restrictive eligibility criteria attached to the current student loans and to create an innovative and more flexible funding instrument to help nurture lifelong learning.
But, there is a very significant rider to these recommendations.
“We believe that these three recommendations should apply to those who do not already have a publicly-funded or publicly-supported degree”. (p.40)
In fact, the Report is unclear about who will qualify for the new lifelong allowance and modular funding; how the allowance and modular funding will work in practice; and how these three recommendations will interact with current funding rules affecting part-time undergraduates. The devil is in the detail.
At first blush, it looks as if only a small and particular group of students will benefit from these changes – 18 year olds aiming for sub-degrees, studying locally at a Further Education college. This fits with the Augar Report’s emphasis on technical education in Further Education.
If this interpretation is correct, the proposed changes are unlikely to be the saviour the part-time sector as a whole so desperately needs. These recommendations are unlikely to stop the massive decline in part-time study in universities which has been far greater than in Further Education colleges. The proposals help fix a significant problem in a small part of post-18 provision. But the Augar Report does not fix the identical problem in the whole of the post-18 sector. The Report has not taken a sufficiently holistic approach to all of the post-18 sector.
ELQ restrictions will continue for part-time students who already have a degree. They will remain disqualified from getting student loans to reskill and get another undergraduate qualification unless studying STEM subjects. Similarly, the rules about intensity of study for part-timers with a degree will continue – they will be unable to access the new modular funding. They still will be prevented from taking short vocationally oriented courses to fit around their family and work commitments and from receiving student financial support.
Lifelong learning, according to the Augar Report, is restricted to those who do not already have a degree. This is lifelong learning for the very few not the many.
The Report and its recommendations are unlikely to kick start part-time provision in universities. Arguably, they help to confine part-time provision to the Further Education sector. Part-time and flexible study is seen primarily as the domain of Further Education colleges not universities.
This lets universities off the hook for disinvesting in part-time provision. This matters because the shrinking supply of part-time provision has contributed to its decline. In turn, these closures limit student choice and students’ opportunities for studying flexibly and part-time.
There is nothing in the report to encourage and incentivise more universities to offer more part-time courses. Part-time provision will continue to be highly concentrated, in post-1992 universities, with very limited provision in Russell Group universities. (What does this say about widening participation?).
In conclusion, the Augar Report fails to confront head-on the decline in part-time student numbers. Far bolder changes are needed including more grant aid and less reliance on loans which could be paid for by diverting the hidden government subsidies underpinning student loans. Fiscal constraints on Augar have prevented it from being sufficiently holistic and radical. The benefits of its reform package are confined, it leaves major problems untouched and it triggers new anomalies. The report talks of “cared for” and “neglected” students – regrettably, the vast majority of part-time students remain neglected.
For more of HEPI’s output on part-time study:
- Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners, HEPI Report 125 by John Butcher, February 2020
- The part-time undergraduate puzzle by Adam Matthews, February 2020