Is there any hope for part time HE?

Last week BIS released research by YouGov – Perceptions of Part Time Higher Education – a survey and focus group results from institutions, employers and current and prospective students. That’s YouGov, the polling company whose president recently said that politicians “should not listen to people like me and the figures we produce”. So what should we make of its findings?

There has not yet been any substantial policy response to the dramatic decline (particularly in England) in part time student numbers. Universities & Science Minister Jo Johnson had nothing to say about the issue in his speech to Universities UK yesterday. So all informed contributions to understanding the problem are welcome. But the report’s 78 pages provide a lot of trees to obscure the key policy questions about the part time wood. Some findings are plain odd – employers thought the numbers of people undertaking part time higher education “was now much higher than it had been historically” and were “somewhat surprised” to find the reverse was true.

Others, reasonably, remind us what we already know – for example the long process of consideration that typically prefaces the decision to participate; the importance of flexibility in how, where and when students are able to study; the demands of part time study and the challenge of balancing work and family.

And the report also reminds us that this group of students and prospective students is highly debt averse. We also know that they, and their employers, are more price sensitive. Under the pre-Browne funding model, employers didn’t see the HEFCE grant subsidy keeping down price. So when things changed they just saw a massive price hike in the teeth of a recession. And students were offered loans they didn’t want for a product they could no longer afford without them.

Which is where the core of the problem lies – the financial support government feels able to provide is largely unsuitable for its intended recipients. Can government do anything about that? Not within the higher education funding system. It is trapped by its own creation – the successful monster of young fulltime participation; the fact that its success persists in the face of massive shifts from grant to loan funding; and the treatment of income contingent loans in the government accounts. The decline of part time cannot be understood without reference to its thriving sibling. As Andy Westwood noted last year for HEA, the English system is becoming increasingly homogenised “at a time when learning models across the world are meant to be diversifying.”

There might have been a chance to rebuild a suitable funding model for part time. For example, one that traded the grant subsidy for maintenance in the full time model with a grant subsidy for the cost of tuition in part time. It would have cost more, but the cost to government per place of the part time student would still have been lower. But that chance went with the Budget announcement that maintenance grant would be switched to loans.

Is there any hope? The proposed apprenticeship levy is the right type of funding – effectively a direct grant paid by employers rather than government – to support an expansion of part time higher education in the guise of degree apprenticeships but there are three things that may mean it is only a partial answer:

  1. The risk that the focus is on hitting the 3 million apprenticeship target, rather than meeting skills needs, so that quantity gets priority over quality and that shorter, lower level apprenticeships are favoured over level 4 and above;
  2. Employer perceptions that place part time HE and apprenticeship in wholly different boxes suitable for different people. YouGov note that “ Employers had much praise for advanced apprenticeships which allow students to gain a degree alongside gaining practical experience, …. It was however, more difficult for this audience to think about current workers undertaking education in this way; …Here in-house training was viewed as being cheaper and more effective.”
  3. And the wants of students themselves. YouGov note the utter disconnect between what employers and institutions think are the primary motivators for part time study and what students self report. The report says “among both current and prospective students, by far the two most prominent drivers of interest for study are to ‘pursue a subject of interest’ and to ‘achieve something new’. These two reasons are distantly followed by ‘career progression’ and ‘to change jobs/change career’.” But institutions and employers think students are motivated by exactly opposite factors.

Time for MOOCs, anyone?

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