What’s going on with part-time study in Wales?

A review of part-time study in Wales has the right ideas, but as David Kernohan explains money and timing stand in the way of the part-time revolution that is needed.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

A few weeks back Kirsty Williams proudly told us that:

 If you look at the Open University in Wales alone, Welsh part-time student numbers have gone up by 81 per cent according to official figures.

This is a lovely sound-bite, but it masks something of a problem – it is true that OU part time numbers have gone up, but it is also true that we are seeing either stasis or decline for part time students elsewhere. If you strip out OU numbers the sector part time student intake has declined by 6 per cent.

The kicker here is that this all happening is after the Diamond review had been implemented. Wales now offers support for living costs for part time students at a similar rate to full time students. It’s supposed to be a friendlier system for part time study than England, but it clearly isn’t quite working yet.

Describing the problem

So HEFCW commissioned research into part time study, the results of which were published today. This confirmed the decade long decline in Wales (scant consolation that this is not as bad as England) and highlights that the OU is entirely responsible for a small recent overall increase. Not as bad as England is not good enough (outside of the Principality Stadium, anyway) – as the report puts it:

The implementation of recommendations offered by the Diamond review to secure greater student financial support parity for part-time students represents a fundamental shift in the student support landscape in Wales, and coincides with the recent small increase in part-time student numbers in Wales during AY 2018-19

To understand the decline in part time study, we need to understand that student support is just one of a number of factors. The way that provision is funded is important, as is the available infrastructure and institutional commitment.

A historic drop in part-time enrollments has made it less financially viable to offer part time provision – the consequent lack of fee income means that provision is cut, and the lack of provision makes the available choice of part time study less attractive to students. Fixing student support is part of the issue, but if the market continues to exhibit this kind of hysteresis nothing is going to change.

Recommending solutions

The report makes a number of recommendations – but the central finding is that part time provision is perceived in the sector as unsustainable by providers. If the cost of delivery is greater than the income associated with it, no amount of warm words will make part time study happen. There’s a general desire to see an increase in credit-based funding for part time, an end to the cap in numbers, and the availability of “pump priming” funds for the development of new courses and modules. This could include more flexible models of part-time provision.

Fundamentally, HEFCW (or CTER as it will be) is called upon to take a clear strategic position on whether or not it wants to support a growth in part time, and where and how this growth should be centred. We’ve the opportunity to consider regionality of provision (“cold spots”) alongside the aims and plans of each provider – including Wales’ FECs. Big chunks of the report’s suggestions are about information gathering and further research – a proper understanding of the demand for part time study (and indeed the demand for skills more generally) is a first step.

One interesting wrinkle is the idea of tiers of funding – clearly bespoke and newly designed provision aimed specifically at part time students would cost more than simply letting part time students do half the full time modules each year, so this could be reflected in funding policy. Likewise students on low intensity part time courses will present costs of a different size or shape, and these are currently not recognised in the Welsh funding model at all.

Timing is everything

The other problem is the timing of this work. These proposals hit HEFCW at round about the time Covid-19 hit the UK – the decision then was to avoid changing funding methodologies while providers were dealing with a pandemic. Coupled with this, HEFCW saw an in year cut in funding – and it’s still not clear if this will change in the future.

Instead there’s a partial review of funding ongoing during this and next academic year – with changes to be implemented from 2022-23. This will fix a few technical issues with part time work (such as rethinking the Access and Retention premium following the demise of Communities First, and considering the replacement of European Structural Funding with whatever the UK government comes up with.

This feeds into a full funding review aiming at 2023-24, by which time HEFCW will likely be CTER and we’ll have a whole new system of regulation. And all the while, it is likely that part time study in Wales (outside of the OU) will continue to decline. Which is a shame.

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