Decline in part-time learners is ‘catastrophic’, says report

There has been a reduction of almost 50 per cent of part-time learners between 2010/11 and 2013/14, despite part-time and flexible higher education (HE) opportunities being essential to social mobility and a successful economy. 

A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute today, sponsored by the Open University and capturing the voices of HE experts, outlines the catastrophic decline in part-time HE and sets out ways to address it.

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David Hughes, Chief Executive at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and contributor to the report, said: “The chance to learn to higher levels is vital to inclusive economic growth and is key in enabling people to realise their potential. We need a concerted effort, new approaches, local labour market engagement and the policymakers across the UK to step in with leadership and meaningful policy responses.

“The decline in part-time HE over the past few years is damaging people’s chances of getting on in life and to businesses finding people with higher level skills. Most people do not follow the traditional full-time undergraduate route, so part-time and flexible learning opportunities are the only way they can access higher education. 

“More action is needed to turn this situation around and the HEPI publication is a timely contribution to the debate about what needs to happen.

The authors of the report titled It’s the finance, stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do about itattribute the decline in part-time students, among other things, to:

  • the sharp increase in tuition fees;
  • inflexible course design; and
  • a lack of good quality information, advice and guidance.

It also explains the catastrophic fall in part-time student numbers, which is harming the economy and limiting people’s ability to transform their lives, and proposes a range of solutions for tackling the problem, such as cost-effective changes to the funding rules, such as providing support for second-chance students and providing funding for students taking a module or two rather than a full course. In addition, engaging employers in course delivery and giving Local Enterprise Partnerships a more formal role.

Hughes added: “The starting point has to be to engage employers in fully understanding their medium and long-term workforce skill needs and working with them to support their existing staff as well as new entrants. On the back of that, colleges and universities will be able to open up more flexible learning which people can fit around busy lives.

“I would also like to see a simple policy shift which allows people to learn in modules, funded through smaller loans. This would be based on the ability to bank the credit and top it up to a full qualification later, helping the learning to fit with other responsibilities as well as reducing the risk of taking out the loan.

“Finally, more research is needed on the cost of studying part-time and whether access to maintenance loans to support those costs might stimulate demand. If we get the link to real jobs right, the return on investment should be strong.”



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