Part-time undergraduate study in England is collapsing. Most people shrug, and put this down to the impact of fees. I’m convinced that England’s sudden shift to a high fee system has had some impact on part-time study, in spite of some fairly generous bursaries and fee waiver policies. But is this the only factor at work?
A quick look at the other UK nations suggests that this is far too simple a view. Much of the recent debate about part-time higher education was based on newly-published HESA data. These figures might suggest that part-time study is thriving elsewhere in the UK – but we need to bear in mind that for the first time, HESA now attributes Open University students to the nation in which they study; previously, HESA attributed all OU students to England, which is where the OU has its campus.
For this one year only, HESA has also made its figures available on the old basis – ie, allocating all OU students to England. The new system gives us a better picture of part-time study as a whole, but the old basis allows us to look more closely at part-time study in face-to-face universities. As the table shows, the pattern is very clear indeed.
First, it shows that part-time higher education is in decline in all four UK nations. But it also shows a particularly steep decline in Scotland. In the years 2009-10 to 2011-12, the number of part-time higher education in Scottish universities fell by a quarter, and albeit at a slower pace, the collapse has continued since then.
Why should this be so? Well, we don’t really know, as the only part of the UK to commission serious research into the issue has been in England, though how much notice the Government took of Claire Callender’s findings is debateable. Elsewhere in the UK, the funding bodies and national governments have preferred not to be troubled by inconvenient evidence in the first place.
So I am speculating – though I am speculating on the basis of experience as well as research into related issues. Fees may well be part of the equation. Initially, the Scottish Government abolished fees for full-time home undergraduates only. When it introduced waivers for part-timers, they were complicated, poorly understood and means-tested, so I would expect them to have deterred some part-timers.
And maybe demand for part-time higher education is falling generally. We might expect this to be the case, given that the massive expansion of full-time study since the 1990s means that most school-leavers with suitable qualifications now find it easy to enter higher education, though perhaps not at the university of their first choice.
But institutions also carry part of the responsibility. Some have never allowed part-time undergraduate study; but others have reduced the number of part-time opportunities because they are attracting more full-time candidates than in the past, and only have a fixed number of funded places. Put simply, part-time students fail the ‘convenience’ test, and institutions have therefore replaced them with full-timers.
So thank goodness, you might say, for the OU. Sadly, although the OU continues to make a massive contribution to part-time higher education across the UK, the OU’s undergraduate numbers are falling in all four nations.
In short, our governments have made a right old mess of part-time higher education, and this in turn is further eroding our already battered lifelong learning system across the UK. This will have far-reaching consequences in terms of equality, with opportunities denied to those who were failed by the system first time around, and in terms of long term and sustainable economic recoveryt.