What even is a “full-time” course anyway?

Jim Dickinson tries to make sense of regs defining a "full time" course that a student has to "attend", and finds a mess built on outdated assumptions that universities may nevertheless want to maintain

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The press seems to have become particularly interested in the idea that students are set to struggle to engage in their course “full-time”.

The Observer splashed with “UK universities offer three-day-week to let students find part-time work”, noting examples from DMU, Sunderland, Anglia Ruskin, University of Law and Coventry.

I’ve certainly come across a whole heap of franchised “full-time” provision that is advertised as requiring study at “weekends only”, or where you only study for “two days a week”, and I’ve come across plenty of courses where “blended” now means “your lectures are [only available] online but your seminars will be in person”.

The Tab, the Mail and The Times have all remixed the 2-3 day week story, and BBC Northern Ireland uses figures from the Department for the Economy to note that “more and more students” are taking up part-time jobs to support themselves – with a student services director arguing that “it’s important to find the balance between working part time and studying full time.”

Earning while learning is nothing new of course – and neither are compressed timetables that facilitate either part-time work, caring responsibilities or commutes (or mixtures of all three). What is new is the normalisation and deliberate facilitation of it all – and the idea that it’s all do-able alongside up to and exceeding full-time work or other responsibilities. The sector seems to be saying – you can have your course cake and eat it.

We’ve noted before that the decade-long collapse of part-time study may well in part be a growth in those on full-time courses juggling these things but over fewer years – and all of this does raise questions about what a full-time student is (and how “full-time” that student either is or can be).

But the related question is what even counts as a “full-time” course for student finance or immigration purposes – and how that relates to attendance.

Credit where it’s due

In student finance terms, at undergraduate level most simply think that 120 credits in a year = FT and 60 credits = PT, but as ever in student finance policy, nothing is simple.

In England PT students who are “in attendance” can get maintenance loans, broadly on the basis of comparing the PT course to the FT course. If the PT “version” is, say, studied at half the pace/credits of the FT equivalent, the student can get 50 per cent of the maintenance loan – and so on, flexing up and down as appropriate. Distance learners don’t get any living costs support.

That therefore begs the question – how “in attendance” do you have to be to count as a FT student? And there things get very interesting indeed.

As it turns out, “full time” is not actually defined at all in the Education (Student Support) Regulations 2011 (and its myriad subsequent amendments), despite the basic “full time” thing then being used to determine PT maintenance entitlement on a pro-rata basis.

As a result the SLC sets out its own definition effectively on behalf of the Secretary of State. It says:

FT courses normally require students to attend the institution or elsewhere for periods amounting to at least 24 weeks within the year and, during that time, they are normally expected to undertake periods of study, tuition, learning in the workplace (or sandwich work-placement that does not meet the criteria to be sandwich year out) which amount to an average of at least 21 hours per week.

If you were to read “attend the institution or elsewhere” as “leaving the house” alongside some of the lines in the press or the ads I keep seeing on social media, it’s hard to believe that those courses are indeed “full time” for the purposes of the regs.

That doesn’t mean that in the “good old days” the SLC was insisting on behalf of the SOS that all “full-time” courses had 21 contact hours or more, but it does mean that it assumed that the rest of the 21 hours might be made up of boddng about the library, dropping in to academics’ office hours or meeting chums to work on a group project.

And then the internet was invented

So we might assume that in the internet age, as long as a student is required to put in 21 hours or more on average either in-person or virtually, they’re on a FT course.

But that can’t be the case – because distance learners can’t get maintenance loans at all. So you might then ask, OK – how distant can you allow a student to be before it ceases to be an eligible course for a maintenance loan?

This time, SLC says:

distance learning course” means a course on which a student undertaking the course is not required to be in attendance by the institution providing the course, where “required to be in attendance” is not satisfied by a requirement imposed by the institution to attend any institution (a) for the purposes of registration or enrolment or any examination; (b) on a weekend or during any vacation; or (c) on an occasional basis during the week.

However you read that paragraph, it can’t be the case that SLC regards logging on to a Zoom call as “attending” an “institution” because if it did, its definition of “distance” would be completely meaningless.

Confusingly, later on in a section explaining the Distance Learning stuff, SLC then says (my bolding):

It is understood that FT means that students are required to undertake their course on most days of the week and for most weeks of the year.

If that’s the case at least some of those examples in the press and most of that franchise provision I’ve seen would not be FT. In other words, “we’ll only ask you to study in the mornings” would be OK, but “you can complete the course over 2 days a week” or “you can do the course at weekends” feels like it fails.

Bits of this were relaxed during the pandemic – but a note from 2011 riffing off the full relaxation of Covid-era restrictions then confuses things a little further:

A full-time course where a student is physically attending the provider on a regular basis for a substantial amount of time (e.g. for lectures, tutorials, learning in the workplace and studying at providers’ libraries) will attract loans for living costs and, where applicable, dependants grants and/or DSA.

“Regular” and “substantial” appear to support a “Monday/Tuesday you’re in and the rest of the week you can work” kind of vibe. It also says:

  1. The fact that certain parts of a course may be provided online and can be followed by a student without being in physical attendance, does not necessarily mean that that course will be classified as a distance learning course. As before, the nature of the courses will be assessed taking account of the required pattern of attendance across the course as a whole. If a provider agrees a pattern of attendance for an individual student that requires only occasional attendance during the week, then that student may be classified as a distance learner for the purposes of student support.

Here “attend” obviously does mean “not in your own house”, and “occasional” is effectively being contrasted with “regular”. But that would all suggest that:

  • a 120 credit a year full-time course that only actually requires attending in-person for an hour a week would attract full loans for living costs;
  • a 60 credit a year part-time course that requires a student to be in for 2.5 full days a week would only get half the maintenance loan;
  • a 120 credit a year full-time course that requires you to be on campus for 6 hours a day for 5 days in your first week, but never requires you to be on campus again, would be “distance” and you’d have no entitlement to a loan.

I raise all of this not because I think the patterns of attendance that are being promoted as flexible should somehow lose their loan entitlement – although I am increasingly concerned by the normalisation of the idea that you can comfortably undertake full-time study on part-time hours.

I raise it because for the “part-time” or “distance” learners above who are getting a pro-rata maintenance or no loan at all, the guidance as it all stands is manifestly and patently unfair – and needs urgent clarification.

The rules for international students, by the way, are theoretically even more onerous.

Blended is banned

From a FT/PT POV they actually seem quite loose, where a FT course can be:

a full-time course of degree level study that leads to a UK-recognised qualification at level 6 or above on the RQF or equivalents;

It’s how much of that FT course you have to “attend” for that’s the issue. This note on coming out of Covid makes clear that:

Students … are not normally permitted to undertake distance or blended learning courses.

And adds:

Distance or blended learning is only permitted for sponsored students as set out, and until the expiry date in, the Covid concessions guidance, provided they will transition to face-to-face learning as soon as circumstances allow.

That suggests that any blended (ie formal contact hours that you don’t have to be on campus for) is a problem – concessions were made during the pandemic to allow some blended provision, but they had an end date:

From 27 September 2021 until 30 June 2022 blended learning, where some study is undertaken in person and some study is undertaken remotely, will be permitted.”

Indeed in UKCISA’s Annual Review back in June, it lamented the inflexibility and lack of clarity that’s around. Last academic year it asked the Home Office to make provision for a form of “remote delivery” to enable elements of online learning to continue, but:

…An initial proposal suggested by the Home Office was rejected by the sector in late summer 2022, with UKCISA communicating to the Home Office why the policy would not work. UKCISA has since advocated for a revised policy on behalf of the sector and has been consulting members at every opportunity to ensure that their views are fully represented and considered in any new policy. We have asked for clarity, robust definitions and that proposals be as generous as possible regarding teaching practices. We continue to ask that there is sufficient time to implement policies before the start of the academic year.

Unless we’ve missed something, that desired clarity, robustness of definitions and generosity in proposals regarding teaching practices simply hasn’t materialised. And it’s hard to believe that those courses where lectures are online but seminars are in-person for home students are making international students on those courses come in.

Add all of this up and it’s a terrible mess of complexity, non-compliance and blind-eyeing that non-compliance in the face of housing shortages, a cost of living crisis and increasingly long commutes.

Now that we’re in an era of having to think not just of “away from home” students and “commuter students”, but dangerously normalising those that are in the overlap of those two Venn circles, it really does all need sorting out.

The LLE legislation would be a good opportunity to do that – but the extent to which it’s wise to keep making it possible to undertake a FT degree in part-time hours and miles from campus is as much a strategic one as it is a technical one. Just how “efficient” should we be making the lives of our learners?

4 responses to “What even is a “full-time” course anyway?

  1. This is a timely piece which many in authority have been ignoring. Clarify is indeed required for fairness and accountability. After all, UK taxpayers deserve to know that Providers are delivering value for money. I think a foundational way to start is by providing simple and straightforward definitions for FT, PT, DL (minimum requirements) applicable to all regulated institutions. This is clearly something for the OfS to reconsider in its conditions of registration.

  2. There are different rules and definitions in FE but possibly some experience that could be helpful:

    * DfE collects data on planned hours for each student at an individual level
    * hours only count if “planned, supervised and organised by the provider”, can be evidenced on timetables and must be within their normal working hours (ie weekends may not count)
    * the count is annual, with 580 planned hours a year now counting as full-time (equivalent to 15 hours a week for 36 weeks plus 40 Covid recovery hours)
    * maximum of 40 hours can be attributed to any single week

    English FE system collects more data on students than anyone knows what to use but perhaps English HE system could collect a bit more in some areas and use some tighter definitions

  3. The chaos of definitions in this area reflect the siloed nature of the different funding and regulatory systems that institutions have to engage with. This has huge implications for the burden that we experience; we have to map our real-world activity to a plethora of different – often contradictory – definitions. For example we have students who are full-time in the OfS B3 indicators and part-time in the OfS funding data. Go figure……

    There is tremendous scope for the standardisation and rationalisation of these definitions – independent of any reorganisation of the funding and regulatory bodies and frameworks. The DfE Data Taskforce was established in February 2022 to address these burden issues. It last met on 23 June 2022.

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