The ongoing decline in part-time higher education in the UK

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that the number of people studying part-time has continued to fall. While the number of part-time higher education students in further education colleges is buoyant, the numbers at HEIs have fallen substantially.

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Over five years, the higher education sector has lost over 14% of its undergraduate degree students, and over 50% of its ‘other undergraduate’ students ( a category which includes people on Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, as well as since modules and accredited short courses).

This continuing decline reflects badly on governments, whose tuition fee policies have slashed demand for a mode of study that allows people to combine work with learning. It also reflects badly on the higher education sector, which has preferred to recruit young school-leavers onto full-time courses (largely because, in my experience, this enables more accurate mid-term planning) and to close down adult education programmes.

Effectively, the four national governments of the UK are presiding over the dismantling of one key plank of the lifelong learning system. The fact that they seem to be stumbling blindly into this policy by default is neither an excuse nor a help.

 

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Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

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Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.

How do mature students perform in higher education?

New PictureThere has been a lot of research into mature students in higher education. My strong impression is that the main focus of it is on access – that is, the rate at which adult students enter institutions, the subjects that they study, the ways in which they study, and their experiences while studying. There has been much less study of how they perform academically, or of how they fare after they graduate.

The fate of non-traditional graduates in the labour market is being investigated by the EMPLOY research project. And a study for HEFCE has recently compared how different types of student perform academically within higher education. The media have shown great interest in HEFCE’s findings, though perhaps predictably they have concentrated largely on evidence that state school students are more likely to achieve a first or upper second class degree than the privately-educated.

My focus in this post is on quite another group: mature age students, whether studying full- or part-time. First, though, a couple of health warnings. We should treat the degree classification system as a very rough and ready indicator of ability and attainment. The proportion who achieve a first or upper second varies over time (usually it grows) and between institutions. It’s difficult to say why these variations occur, not least because any discussion triggers defensiveness in the academic community, and ‘dumbing down’ accusations from the tabloids. But if degree classification is far from perfect, it tells us something.

My next qualifier concerns the methods used in the study. The researchers undertook a statistical analysis that allowed them to compare groups by controlling for other factors. For example, the method only compared mature students who had been to state schools and were studying at pre-92 universities with younger students with the same background, and so on. This aspect was not much reported in the media, who simply headlined the finding that – to cite the BBC – State students outperform private in degree grades. 

Though the media ignored this point, it matters because it means that the researchers are trying to compare like with like. But of course, they cannot take account of factors for which they do not have information (such as income level, family background or first language). And they could only look at very large groups, taking all mature students together (defined as over 21 at time of entry) and all minority ethnic groups together (despite huge variations between different groups).

This procedure makes a big difference to how we understand the performance of mature students. The crude data for 2013/14 show that 64% of mature graduates achieved a first or upper second, compared with 75% of young graduates. But once they controlled for other factors, the researchers found a “dramatic” shift in their figures: taking everything into account, mature students were 7% more likely to gain a top degree, as opposed to 11% less likely.

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What this means is that for mature students, the negative variation in degree results is largely explained by other things than their age. For example, it might be down to their prior qualifications having prepared them less well than recent A-Levels, or their tendency to cluster in universities (and colleges) that award relatively few first and upper second class degrees. And it might also mean that adults have a relative advantage in being able to draw on life experience, which would explain the large shift between the observed gap of -11% and the +7% gap in the statistical analysis.

Then we come to part-time students, who are of course largely likely to be adults who combine study with other activities such as caring or work. The observed gap between part-time and full-time students is large: 75% of full-timers gained a first or upper second, compared with 57% of part-timers. When other factors are taken into account, the gap fell, but by only 4%, from 18% to 14%.

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So, all other things being equal, there appears to be a serious educational disadvantage from studying part-time. Like all statistical models this is a pattern at the level of the whole population, and a lot of individuals may have very different experiences, but that does not invalidate the method. Rather, it tells us that we need to look elsewhere to explain the relatively poor performance of many part-time students – and, I hope, then to do somethiing about it.

And as an academic veteran, I can think of a few possible causes that lie within the power of universities. Academic support for part-timers tends to be less effective, partly because facilities are often closed outside ‘normal’ working hours, for example. Other factors can be very challenging for institutions, particularly those that result from the busy lives of people who have full time roles elsewhere, and who are students for only a relatively small part of their lives.

What the research does not justify is the sharp decline in part-time and mature-age study that has taken place across all four nations of the UK. The collapse in part-time higher education in particular is a scandal: it makes a mockery of claims to be promoting forms of study that combine learning with work, and it is undermining social mobility. In the end, then, it will damage both society and the economy.

Adult learning and the Lions

I am a bit of a rugby fan. Well, okay, I love the game, for all its flaws. And I love it in spite of the dramatic changes brought about by professionalisation. So far – touch wood – the game still has its roots in the community, and top flight internationals still acknowledge a connection to the minis, the age grades, and the women’s teams, as well as to the volunteers who nurture the world-beaters of the future.

And what, you ask, does this have to do with adult learning? Unlike soccer stars, rugby’s top professionals know that, unless they are remarkably lucky, their earnings from the sport will not be enough to live on afterwards. If they are unlucky, their career will end prematurely. So they need to think about what comes next.

And that’s why adult learning matters for elite rugby players. I’m aware of two current Lions players – the very best that the Northern hemisphere has to offer – who are taking part-time degrees as mature students. Alex Corbiseiro, the prop forward who is soon to join Northampton Saints, is studying history at Birkbeck, University of London. Ryan Grant, former soldier and Glasgow prop, is studying environmental science with the Open University.

There may be other Lions players who are studying while playing professional rugby – if so, I’d be interested to know about them. Meanwhile, Corbiseiro and Grant should remind us, if we need reminding, of why it is so important to have a thriving part-time system that allows adults to return to higher education without abandoning their career. At a time when part-time study is at greater risk than for generations, this is a critical message.