Supporting part-time students in Scotland

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The independent review of student support in Scotland, commissioned by the Scottish Government last year and published last week, notes that there are more than 230,000 students studying part-time across Scottish further and higher education. Unfortunately, with respect to part-time students, that is about as far as it goes.

Fairness, parity and clarity are the watchwords of the review, arguing – rightly, I believe – that students in further education should have access to student maintenance support, just as do students in higher education. The central recommendation is that there should be an annual entitlement to a minimum student income of £8,100, comprising a mix of loans and bursaries, for all students.

A history of being ignored

Except, on closer inspection, “all” actually means “some”. Parity refers only to type of education – further or higher – and not to mode of study. The minimum income recommendation applies only to full-time students; the review “acknowledge[s] that additional work will be needed on the impact on part-time students”.

Part-time students, whether in further or higher education, are not currently eligible for standard maintenance support. This review was an overdue opportunity to fix that, but instead part-time study has been kicked into the long grass – again. The review suggests that the Scottish Government and others should consider how part-time students could be supported. The Commission on Widening Access, which reported in March 2016, did exactly the same thing.

This does not make sense. Widening access to higher education, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear time and time again, is a national priority. Part-time study has a massive role to play in creating opportunities by reaching students for whom full-time study is impossible. So, its continued exclusion from public policy discussion is problematic and potentially self-defeating.

Who are part time students?

Part-time students tend to come from the backgrounds we – as a sector and as a nation – say we want to reach. To draw examples from my own institution, 17% of new entrants across Scotland come from SIMD20 areas, the most-deprived quintile of communities. In Glasgow, that figure rises to fully 40%. Over two-thirds have an individual income of less than £25,000 per year, despite the fact that more than half of Open University students in Scotland are in full-time work and another fifth are working part-time.

Just over 20% declare a disability and just under 20% come to us with a college higher national qualification, while almost 20% don’t actually have traditional university entrance qualifications. Of the 42% studying STEM subjects, 47% are female.

This is what wider access looks like. We cannot widen access with a narrow focus on school leavers. Learner journeys are not linear. The traditional pathway from school straight into a four year full-time degree does not work for everyone. It follows that we need to support alternative routes into and through higher education, routes which allow students the flexibility to study in a manner that suits them and their circumstances. Part-time provision does that, but in focusing only on full-time students the review – like many others – falls short.

Of course, the evidence shows that part-time students behave differently when it comes to student finance. We know that from how they have reacted to increased fees in England, where an aversion to taking on increased debt has contributed to a 61% collapse in first year part-time undergraduates since 2008/09.

Maintenance needs

Excluding part-time students from proposals around maintenance support is a different scenario. Fees always need to be paid, whether by the state or the individual. The requirement for maintenance support depends on a student’s individual circumstances. Some will conclude that they need it and some won’t, perhaps calculating that they can earn enough to see them through. But to exclude part-time students, based solely on the mode of study that works for them, denies them even the option of that support.

Studies have shown that in our increasingly dynamic economy, we won’t have enough school leavers to fill the anticipated jobs of the future. Scotland needs people to have the option to upskill and retrain in order to change jobs and careers. For most people in work, that means part-time study. Access to higher education throughout our working lives is not a luxury, it is an economic necessity.

With the review now published, it falls to the Scottish Government to decide how or whether to proceed with the review’s recommendations. I hope that, with the principles of fairness, parity and clarity in mind, Ministers will conclude that a broader, more inclusive approach – one which acknowledges that mode of study is not an acceptable means by which to exclude students from support – is both economically sensible and socially just.

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