We are immensely proud of the heritage and missions of our two universities and the pioneering roles they have played widening access to higher education through part-time study.
But without policy reform the vital role of part-time study is now, again, at serious risk.
A tale of unintended consequences
Minister Robert Halfon’s recent speech included a welcome commitment to address the calamitous 60 per cent decline in part-time undergraduate students in England over the last decade. This decline has been a particularly English phenomenon, for in Wales we have seen part-time numbers increase as a direct result of deliberate policy measures.
In England, the decline was largely an unintended consequence of policy change, firstly the ending of loans for qualifications at the same or lower level than already achieved, and subsequently with the trebling of fees in 2012, deterring many adult learners with existing financial commitments. There is now a clear and present danger that this is about to happen again for different reasons but just as unintended.
Part-time students are essential to the future of our country. They are people who often faced disadvantage earlier in life but now have the potential to contribute to the skills needs of our economy. They are often in low paid work, seeking to move up into better jobs with higher value added for the economy or fill vacancies in our public services. They are often bringing up a family, caring for ageing parents or coping with health challenges. They are the people that Minister Halfon probably has in mind when he talks so passionately about how higher education can advance social justice.
Life on part-time
Yet they are the Cinderella of the higher education sector, where the focus seems to be unceasingly on the young full-time student moving away from home to study. Such a student can receive up to £30,000 of subsidised loan funding across three years of study to pay their rent and other living costs (more in London and for four-year programmes). This falls significantly short of what it costs to move away to study, but an Open University student studying either part-time or full-time at home or work is not eligible for a penny of maintenance loans unless they can demonstrate that it is impossible for them to study face-to-face due to a severe disability.
A part-time Birkbeck student commuting across London to study in classes between work and family commitments only receives the lower living-at-home loan. These students still have maintenance costs, from study materials to travel, childcare or reducing their work hours to study.
While there have been debates in the UK Parliament about how students are struggling with their living costs and losing out on the government support made available to others, this again is framed in terms of the full-time student living away from home. Yet the cost-of-living crisis is very real for our part-time students, who are being forced to de-prioritise non-essential spending and often to increase their paid work hours to try to cope. This is having a direct impact on potential students’ decisions whether to take on debt to study and whether they can afford to continue studying, with obvious consequences for new recruitment and rates of continuation and completion.
Enter the LLE
The UK government does help. It provides funding called the student premium for every part-time student and this makes an essential contribution to the cost of providing part-time courses and supporting students. But this vital funding has been repeatedly cut in recent years and is at risk of being cut again. And it still means that the fee is a lot higher than in the other UK nations, with nothing approaching the level of maintenance support that a part-time student in Wales receives.
There is, though, light on the horizon. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement included very little about skills funding but did emphasise its importance to growth as well as re-committing to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. This important reform, planned for 2025 but which is really needed sooner than that, will extend student loans to the study of short courses (modules) and encourage students to consider qualification options in addition to degrees, such as Higher Technical Qualifications, certificates and diplomas. It will encourage a lifelong approach to higher education participation, enabling students to build up and transfer credit, re-skill and be lifelong learners.
In terms of skills, these short courses and new, stackable qualifications are potentially far more important than higher and degree apprenticeships unless funding for apprenticeships is expanded very significantly. Currently they cannot grow beyond their tiny share of higher education participation because they are cash-limited by the fixed income from the employer apprenticeship levy, a form of corporation tax. Their example, however, of making higher education affordable by employers paying and providing maintenance support through a wage is rarely highlighted.
Setting student choice free
We welcome the LLE, but it is essential that there is more ambition than tweaks to the current system. It is also essential that we avoid trying to second guess what students need by designating top-down what short courses and qualifications will be funded. The sector is already replete with data that can help students make those decisions, and we are already burdened with heavy and costly regulation without adding more costs with a complicated system.
Now is the time to re-invent part-time higher education as an option for all age groups and backgrounds, to inform and support student choice but not dictate it, and to simplify rather than further complicate our higher education system, with the new LLE learning from rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. The sooner the better if we are to stop the new decline in part-time study that has already started.