A decade on, are we any nearer to fixing part-time study?

The post-Browne settlement promised hard times ahead for part-time study - David Kernohan asks whether things have got any better.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

There are two types of ministerial regret.

There’s the grand, heroic version – where a signature policy or life-shaping idea failed to survive on hitting reality. Kwarteng’s economic plans, for instance.

And there’s the quieter, sin-of-omission style regret. The unintended consequences of ill-considered plans.

The ELQ argument

In his 2017 book A Higher Education David Willetts notes:

One of my great regrets looking back on my time as universities minister is that the number of part-time students fell so sharply. We thought we were offering them more help by, for the first time, extending loans to them to cover their fees.

Funnily enough, he seemed less concerned at the time. When asked about the problem In 2014, he told the Commons:

This is not to do with the introduction of the fees and loans… the burden of repayment on graduates has fallen. The hon. Gentleman describes a trend that began under the previous Government. We believe it is attributable significantly to their policy of not funding students who already have an equivalent-level qualification (ELQ).

He still clings to the ELQ argument in his 2017 book – though with his party in power, it is notable how little has changed. In 2022-23 there are still only a very small number of part-time courses available to students who hold an ELQ – some NHS bursary-supported courses, a few other STEM subjects, and some foundation degrees.

But the explanation he offers betrays another assumption – that part-time study is only really of interest to those that are already qualified. ELQ, after all, is no problem if you don’t already have a degree.

The state of the system

At first glance, there are encouraging signs – the steep plummet since 2012 ended in 2017, and a few years of virtual stasis has been rewarded with welcome signs of part time undergraduate growth this year.

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The majority of this growth, however, is at just one provider – the Open University. Some 46 per cent of the UK’s part time undergraduates study there, up ten percentage points from 2014. Remove the OU from the chart, and we’re back to steady numbers after a long decline – the University of London undergraduate offer growing in recent years helping out a lot there.

Contrary to the popular narrative, removing the Open University from calculations shows steep part-time undergraduate decline in Wales and Scotland too. Northern Ireland starts from a small base, but growth in recent years has been fuelled by expansion at the University of Ulster.

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All this is great news for the Open University – it has done a superb recruitment job in a difficult policy climate. But a lot more providers used to have substantial part-time offers – distance learning is a great experience for many, but the on-campus experience is very important for many.

We also see an intriguing move away from part time “other undergraduate” – for all providers down 60,000 since 2014, and again holding for Wales and Scotland. This should be ringing alarm bells at DfE – a drop in demand for non-degree provision on a part time basis is not good news for the upskilling and retraining aims of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE).

Is the LLE a thing?

Wonks with long memories will recall that DfE ran a consultation on the LLE back in February. Ten months on, and we’ve heard nothing – the only data points have been unintentional ones from the short courses pilot. The unscheduled addition of maintenance loan entitlements alongside fee loans smacked a little of policy panic, but even that wasn’t enough to see more than 12 (twelve) students start an LLE style short course in September.

Looking back at the actual consultation it still feels like very early-stage questions were being asked. As the demand for part-time undergraduate degrees seems to be holding up better than demand for other part time undergraduate courses, the omission of detailed thinking on a national credit transfer framework seems like a big problem. If students do indeed want degrees, even though however much you want to sell them (30 credit) modules, the only way you can sell modules is if they stack up reliably to make degrees. Higher Technical Qualifications, like Foundation Degrees before them, are an alternative destination but we have limited information on how attractive the former are.

This year’s Queen’s Speech promised two higher education bills – the one that isn’t about freedom of speech was supposed to contain measures operationalising the LLE. As of December 2022 there’s been no sign of it. This isn’t (yet) slippage on the delivery plan officially – though frankly, if you’ve brought in Michael Barber to draw trajectories that probably isn’t an indication that everything is going well.

A national system of credit transfer isn’t even in the project plan.

How have we failed part time students?

There’s a notable gap in our understanding of this issue. There’s been very little formal examination of why people choose to study part-time, or of applicant and student views of how the government could help make it easier for them.

Given the potential cost of the LLE policy, both in terms of the loans and the cost incurred by providers in developing a stand-alone modular offer, the absence of such work is hugely surprising.

On Wonkhe, we’ve published details of research by Phoenix Insights that suggests that the student loan offer as configured is unattractive to mature part-time learners. It passes the sniff test – as the free text responses suggest a change in career is a gamble (with a likely initial loss of earnings at least) even before you add in loan repayments. While the system as we currently see it is income contingent, repayments are now likely to continue for most of your adult working life. And as a mature entrant if you are paying 9 per cent of your earnings anyway, why not go all in?

Part-time higher education is an idea just about everyone is in favour of – and the LLE idea of enabling access to more types of courses is popular with just about everyone. But it’s far from clear that we have the message right just yet – and time is rapidly ticking away.

3 responses to “A decade on, are we any nearer to fixing part-time study?

  1. Thanks David and Wonkhe for highlighting part-time HE this week.

    The sector figures you present are artificially boosted by the big increase in part-time study during 2020/21, when many people brought forward a decision to enrol because they had time. Numbers are now falling back because part-time enrolment tends to follow economic cycles – the cost of living crisis is now meaning many people are delaying or cancelling a decision to study.

    We know a lot about why students study part-time – it’s the flexibility and affordability for people with work, family, caring and housing commitments, or who just want to minimise debt.

    Many providers have withdrawn from part-time to focus on less costly (for them) full time provision which brings economies of scale, and the timetable then makes part time study difficult (for the student, with a timetable spread across the week). So there has been some decline in Wales despite the generous maintenance grant and loan system for part-time students but because some institutions have not prioritised part-time provision. Those that have are growing.

    The Welsh maintenance package makes a huge difference and has led to a large growth in the OU’s enrolments in Wales. Maintenance loans are only available in England for ‘distance learning’ students if they declare a disability and can’t study on campus, which means the vast majority of OU students in England don’t receive them, despite having maintenance costs. However, the funding an institution receives per student for part-time provision is higher in England than Wales.

    Overall, these trends are putting huge pressure on the OU’s finances as in no UK nation has the unit of resource kept up with costs despite our very cost-effective model (though it is not cross-subsidised by international student fees) using digital rendering right across the range of subjects (few institutions provide science and technology online).

    I share your concern about level 4 and 5, where there’s no evidence yet that the LLE will turn around the situation (a very different situation to Scotland, where there is large level 4 and 5 provision, mostly in colleges). The OU is working on a pilot with FE colleges across England to help them develop this level of provision, but even with substantial OfS grant funding for the colleges many are finding it difficult to engage because of their own skill and funding shortages, and a continuing pattern of young people especially wanting to study for a full campus-based degree, given the loan system means there is little up front cost to doing this.

    The LLE may raise awareness that taking more loan now means less for e.g. reskilling later in life but, as you point out, debt aversion may increase later in life and there’s a risk about whether a first HE qualification that’s not a degree will have similar currency with employers even if accredited as part of an occupational standard.

    A lot of issues and a brewing scenario of both unintended consequences and policy failure as long as the government ambition is there but the policy measures are not.

  2. In the UK we tend to think of p/t as ‘not full-time’ rather than a mode of engagement with learning that has may different motivations and explanations. Some part-time study is, undoubtedly (and certainly in CE mode), an active lifestyle choice of the learner, but some is driven by other considerations (employer’s requirements, earning potential, health). One key issue in expanding p/t provision at u/g level (and for PGT) is surely whether universities are attuned to support that diversity of motivations through ‘p/t mode’. Given that p/t learners typically are more likely to intermit or drop out – at least that always used to be the case, I haven’t checked the data such as it is – crafting regimes of support for the mode of study that encompass a variety of motivations/situations is surely key?

    1. Agree re work on implementing more/better regimes of support for p/t. Drop out is often for reasons unanticipated at start (own/family illness, redundancy etc) so flexibility can help. HEIs can also try even more agility and focus on other sources of funding eg employers, and curriculum to suit not just awaiting or lobbying for public funding.

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