Over recent weeks, the fall in the participation of part-time students in higher education has, at long last, been given more attention.
The recent resignation of Peter Horrocks, the vice chancellor of The Open University, has also exposed the scale of the issue as the University faces significant strategic challenges as a consequence of the shrinking demand for part-time and distance learning opportunities.
This is primarily about mature part-time students, though we must be careful not to conflate the two, especially since full-time mature student numbers are on the increase. New research on the issue is backing-up recommendations for what the government and the sector can do. Part-time students are variously presented as ‘lost’ (Callender and Thompson), ‘forgotten’ (Million Plus), and invisible in that great influencer of university strategies – league tables.
Time for collaborative action to achieve reform
It is lamentable that the access debate has been so narrowly focused on squeezing a small number of additional students into the most elite institutions. This has unhelpfully distracted from more meaningful assessments of the wider system, and how it might best be configured to serve individuals, society, and the economy – in the interests of great teaching and research. Undoubtedly, this myopia has contributed to the decrease in opportunities for part-time study, and for mature students to access higher education.
At a time when universities are in the firing line from various angles (and are no longer immune to levels of public distrust usually reserved for government, business, and the media), there could not be a more important moment to ensure that the sector is accessible to everyone, including those not born in this millennium. The release of the access and participation plans of the OfS, combined with the government’s review of post-18 education, has created space for innovation and change. Now is the time for the higher education policy community to collaborate in establishing a clear vision for reform, ensuring that the resources, structures, and incentives are in place to achieve it.
The OfS’s commitment to reverse the decline in participation by mature students from underrepresented groups may encourage those parts of the sector where provision is already established. But, without serious incentives or pressure, many parts of the sector are unlikely to offer wider opportunities to study part-time in higher education. A reversal in the decline cannot take place without a coherent, joined-up strategy that recognises the inter-relation of factors, such as; the influence of the economy, the behaviour of employers, the student finance system, and the availability of part-time provision.
Bridge Group Summit on Mature Students
There is now considerable momentum behind the issue of promoting participation amongst mature learners and the Bridge Group contributed to this recently by hosting a summit on the topic. It was an opportunity to test ideas, discuss existing effective practice, and identify key policy priorities to increase participation. It also explored how to rejuvenate the part-time market and ensure the success of those mature students who do enter the system. With a 67% drop in part-time participation since 2008/9, it is easy to lose sight of another worrying figure: nearly 12% of mature learners leave higher education after their first year. This is double the number of young learners who do not continue. A focus on access must not take place in isolation from measures to ensure the retention and success of mature learners.
A number of important themes emerged during the event.
- The urgency for reform in order to halt the significant decline in the participation of part-time students. The sector, with the support of the OfS, needs to secure the political will to respond to the challenge.
- The need for improved data-gathering, in order to increase understanding of the participation of mature students. Crucially, the sector needs to agree on a measure to identify socio-economic disadvantage amongst mature learners. At present, we are not able to talk about social mobility for mature learners with any degree of accuracy.
- The need for greater incentives for higher education institutions to deliver flexible courses, to ensure that part-time provision is available for learners across the country and is not confined to a small number of specialist providers. This is critically important given the fact that the majority of mature learners attend their local institution.
- The value of clear information and messaging for prospective mature learners, to help them make decisions and navigate their way into, and through, the system. There is much to be learnt from models of effective support developed at institutions such as the Open University and Birkbeck, University of London.
You can read a summary of the discussion, and the recommendations derived from it, here on our website.
The Bridge Group will continue to contribute to this debate by building understanding and listening to colleagues, to identify the most significant gaps in knowledge. At this stage, building the evidence base is vitally important to enable us to contribute meaningfully to the post-18 review, and to ensure a more equitable higher education system along intergenerational and class lines.