Part time crisis can’t afford half measures

In the often fevered mainstream discourse around tuition fees and student finance, a default focus on young full-time undergraduate students underpins the debate. Yet it is older and part-time students whose participation in higher education has been hardest hit by the 2012 reforms to student finance.

Today the Sutton Trust publishes a new report, authored by Prof Claire Callender and John Thompson, graphically illustrating the extent of the decline in part-time and mature study, and its causes. Between 2010 and 2015, part-time students living in England fell by 51%, a dramatic drop by any standards. Using Open University data to compare participation rates in England with Scotland and Wales (where fee arrangements did not change in 2012), the authors demonstrate that almost half of this decline is attributable to the 2012 reforms, where means-tested grants for part-timers were replaced by tuition fee loans, and fees increased substantially. As a consequence, by 2015, there were 40,000 ‘lost part-timers’ per year potentially missing out on part-time study.

It is little surprise, therefore, that former universities minister David Willetts has expressed his great regret at the effects of the 2012 reforms on part-time and mature students. In policy circles, there has been an increasing recognition of the need to tackle the crisis, including a MillionPlus report on mature students published this week. However there remains a lack of political momentum. It is welcome that mature and part-time study will fall under the remit of the Review of Post-18 Education, yet it seemed to be an afterthought as the Prime Minister launched the review in Derbyshire.

Second chance, not second class

It is nonetheless imperative that something is done to arrest this decline. Studying later in life is an important ‘second chance’ route to social mobility, and part-time learners are more likely to be from less well-off backgrounds than those on full-time courses. In fact, young part-time learners are 50% more likely to come from low participation neighbourhoods. This means part-time study routes are vital to those who may have missed out on higher education earlier in life, or who have work or family commitments that make full-time study impossible.

Lifelong learning is only going to become more important. Previous Sutton Trust research has shown that, among the potential 15 million jobs in the UK at risk through automation, the roles most in danger are roles more likely to be performed by those from less well-off backgrounds. The ability to upskill will become even more crucial in the context of these changes, and it is essential that those with less financial resources are not left even further behind.

Consequently, we need to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to higher education and develop financial solutions that work for the particular circumstances of part-time learners, including the replacement of loans with grants, extended eligibility criteria and clearer rules on eligibility for support.

Opportunities to get on in life should not be restricted to a one-off decision at age 18. Genuine social mobility would empower all those in society to gain the skills they need to succeed, regardless of age or background, and part-time education is key to this.

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