Between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the number of part-time undergraduate entrants at UK universities and further education colleges in England decreased by 58%. The fall was greater at the Open University, the key provider of part-time study, than at other universities and FE colleges in England (63% compared with 45%).
Yet part-time study is central to the national skills strategy, for re-skilling and up-skilling the workforce, and for widening higher education participation. What has caused this decline?
Part-time student numbers have been falling for over a decade, but they have plummeted since the 2012 student funding reforms, and have fallen every year since then. The reforms abolished means-tested fee and course grants, introduced fee loans, and reduced teaching grants – leading to big increases in tuition fees. Although one of their aims was to stem the long-term decline in part-time study, they have actually had completely the opposite effect. These changes largely explain the dramatic and continuing falls in part-time undergraduate enrolments.
By comparing trends for entrants domiciled in England with those in Scotland and Wales, who were unaffected by the 2012 reforms, it is clear that most of the decline in 2012 was caused by the large increase in tuition fees in England.
Loans are (still) not the answer
New income-contingent loans for part-timers were meant to mitigate any negative effect on access resulting from these tuition fee hikes. They have not. The loans’ eligibility criteria are too restrictive. Less than half of part-time entrants even qualify for them. Without loans, potential students have to pay their tuition fees up-front and out of their pocket, or abandon the idea of studying. As research repeatedly shows, upfront fees and fee increases have an adverse impact on participation unless they are accompanied by equivalent increases in student support. The falling enrolments are entirely unsurprising and predictable.
Of those people who are eligible for loans, only around three out of ten take them out. Overall, about a quarter of all part-time entrants to universities and FE colleges in England take out loans, compared with over 90% of full-timers. Loans are far less popular and widespread among part-time students than among full-time students.
Some part-time students are prepared to borrow to study. But for most, part-time study is now too expensive. It is unaffordable. They do not perceive loans as an adequate safeguard against the risks of part-time study. Part-time students, who tend to be older and have substantial family and financial commitments, are far more price sensitive and debt averse than their younger full-time peers. Their unwillingness or inability to pay the higher fees upfront, or via loans, is compounded by wider economic factors.
Taking out a loan and having to pay, in essence, an additional 9% of marginal tax for loan repayments, or more than £6,000 a year for fees, is a leap of faith when the returns on their investment are unknown and uncertain. As research repeatedly demonstrates, the financial returns from lifelong learning, higher earnings, and improved employment opportunities, are mixed. Yet governments justify student loans because of the assumed financial returns and their belief that “who benefits pays”. Their solution to declining numbers is to increase opportunities to take out loans. This has not worked to date and will not work in future.
The “major review” must be brave
Loans are not the right policy instrument for encouraging greater participation in part-time study. The “major review” must rethink the funding arrangements for part-time undergraduates. It must replace the “one size fits all” approach to student funding with different tailor-made policies for part-time and for full-time students. The review needs to create financial incentives for prospective students to study part-time, and for universities and FE colleges to provide part-time courses. It must be courageous.