The recent call from the Russell Group for the reinstatement of maintenance grants in England highlights that HE lobbying groups mainly focus on removing barriers for school-leavers.
It’s not surprising – 18 is the median age for first-year full-time undergraduates at English universities. But if we really want to talk about diversity and how to cast a wider net, concentrating solely on the 18-year-old full-time market won’t cut it. Less than half of undergraduate entrants in England – and less than a third from disadvantaged areas – are 18-year-olds studying full-time.
For a significant number of students, studying full-time is not an option at 18. Family circumstances, caring responsibilities, a bad experience of school or simply wanting to get out and earn may mean that no matter what support universities across the UK offer, their decision will be “not now and not for me”.
But that isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the end of the story. Making sure that doors stay open for these people to make new choices and once again study or train part-time could have a greater impact on widening access and diversity than trying to boost the number of full-time 18 year-olds even further.
Claire Callender and John Thompson’s report The Lost Part-Timers showed the unbalanced impact of the 2012 student funding reforms on the part-time market. The catastrophic drop in part-time undergraduate entrants in England – down 59% since 2011/12 – has struck the largest blow on those at the biggest disadvantage.
Official statistics show that part-time undergraduate entrants are more likely to come from disadvantaged areas, with 17% coming from disadvantaged areas compared to only 13% of full-time students. Prior to funding reforms in 2012, more than four in ten undergraduate entrants from disadvantaged areas were part-time..
While there has been a 10% increase in new entrants to full time HE from disadvantaged areas since 2011/12, this has been overshadowed by the 54% decline in disadvantaged entrants to part-time HE. As a result, the number of disadvantaged undergraduate entrants to HE as a whole in England has fallen by 17%.
The difference between the median and the mean
When it comes to widening access to universities, 18-year-olds who had free school meals are not the whole picture. The median age of first-year, part-time undergraduates at universities in England is 31. To really improve diversity in our universities, it’s vital that support for part-time students is also tackled. Proposals for the reintroduction of maintenance support in England will only help if such support is also extended to part-time and distance learners. And there is one part of the UK that has already thought about that – Wales.
Revised student support arrangements will be available to new entrants in Wales from September 2018, introducing a flat rate maintenance payment for all full-time students of £1,000 a year. This is supplemented by a means-tested mix of grants and loans that give all students access to living wage levels of support. For those who are most economically disadvantaged, this will be almost wholly non-repayable.
The evidence base for the Diamond Review was extensive, and took a cohesive and comprehensive look across tuition fee and maintenance support, across full-time and part-time and across all levels of study. Crucially, the review recommended, and the Welsh Government agreed, that the new arrangements should apply to part-time and distance learners. New part-time entrants starting study this September in Wales will, therefore, access maintenance grants and loans – and tuition fee loans – in the same way as their full-time counterparts, just proportionate to their intensity of study. This means that, for example, the typical part-time student aiming to complete a degree in six years with an income of less than £25,000 will be eligible for a maintenance grant of £3,000 per year.
So what has been the response to these changes? Our phone lines at The Open University in Wales are buzzing with enquirers interested in studying and those enquirers are telling us that the new package of support has rekindled their interest. Registrations from new learners for October 2018 study are more than 50% above the same point in the recruitment cycle in 2017.
It is very early days and we’ll need time to see the long-term impact on part-time study, and if it’s led to more diversity among our students, but the early signs are showing that the new way of funding HE in Wales is opening up more and more opportunities. If there’s going to be a significant upturn in access to university study in England from among disadvantaged groups, it is essential that recommendations from the Post-18 Review address both full time and part-time needs. If we’re serious about student choice, they need realistic options to study flexibly and, if needs be, switch from full-time to part-time or vice-versa. Policies that put up arbitrary barriers between modes of study won’t help.
To widen access in England, it needs to become more affordable to study part-time. In Wales, this may well be happening already.