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Disappearing part-time and mature students: time for change

6 February 2018

Professor Julie Lydon

University of South Wales

A critical priority landing on the desks of London's new education ministers will be the timing and scope of the review of higher education funding in England, announced last year by the Prime Minister. It is crucial that the scope of the review considers the full diversity of students – their background, how they learn and what they wish to study – and what the future skills needs of the economy will be.  ​​

For some students, a traditional, three-year full-time degree may be the preferred path.  But for others, it may not.  As the UK Government's industrial strategy highlighted, it is vital our education system allows people to learn and train throughout their lives.   

Every time I shake the hands of students as they receive their degrees in graduation ceremonies, I marvel at the remarkable stories behind their individual achievement.  They are students managing to fit in part-time study alongside parenting and caring responsibilities.  In many cases, they are holding down a full-time job at the same time.    For them, flexible learning opportunities allow them to develop their skills and progress their careers while juggling competing demands for their time.   People like this are inspirational; however, they are less numerous than they used to be. 

The most recent statistics on higher education published last month showed that the number of part-time student enrolments dropped by around one third between 2012-13 and 2016-17 in the UK, with falls in undergraduate numbers being the main driver.  

What does this fall mean to employers meeting their skills needs? And what implications does it have for learners, on the opportunities available to them to enhance their careers? Universities UK is launching a project to examine these very questions and to look at the economic case for flexible learning.  We're asking to what extent the UK's productivity could be enhanced through greater flexible learning opportunities in higher education.

The outputs and policy recommendations of this project will inform the UK Government's forthcoming review of higher education. I will be leading an advisory group which will help shape these recommendations, and we will be working in partnership with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to deliver this project.  

We will gather evidence about which employers, and in which sectors, have been most affected by the fall in part-time students, and what their response has been. The project will also consider the future needs of employers, which employers would benefit most from more flexible learning approaches, and what changes they would like to see.    

The perspective of learners is just as important.  Getting a degree can have a major impact on an individual's life.   As the first in my family to go to university, I know from personal experience how it did this for me.  Flexible learning can give people of all ages new and improved life chances and choices; it is particularly important in an ageing but constantly changing society that we create the right environment for lifelong learning. 

The project will gather evidence on what has happened to the 'lost' part-time students who have chosen not to study, and what did they choose to do instead. We will consider the needs of learners across their lifetime, and to what extent existing provision in England meets these needs. It will be important for lessons to be drawn from the experience of the devolved administrations, and for the similarities and differences in experience on trends in part-time students to be explored.     

The emphasis of this project will be to gather fresh new evidence, while building on the richness of past studies and research on flexible learning, lifelong learning and part-time study. We aim to consult as widely as possible to gather views. As we await the UK Government's review, we would encourage anyone with an interest in this area to feed in to this project.

This issue has been discussed for a number of years. It is now time to gather the evidence and put forward answers.​

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Mr & Mrs Gist
Mr & Mrs Gist says:
10 February 2018 at 14:40

My concern with re-entering higher education as a mature student is more that I worry how relevant the course will be for my sector which is moving at a rapid pace. I worry the course material and lecture team will be out of date.

Deborah Wilcox
Deborah Wilcox says:
11 February 2018 at 12:50

I am a mature, part-time post graduate student holding down two part time jobs, running a household and a full time carer to my 90 year old mother and a part-time carer for a profoundly disabled step-daughter. I also manage a chronic life-changing illness. I probably tick all the boxes in your survey so if you need any guinea-pigs, please feel free to call on me.

G.S says:
12 February 2018 at 12:24

How does the project intend to reach the 'lost' part-time students in order to gather participants? Some of these 'lost' students may have never considered higher education, but would have done under the previous political and economic circumstances. In this case,they may not consider themselves as meeting the criteria for potential participants. 'Lost' part-time students are likely an incredibly diverse group, making recruitment difficult. Also, What are the sectors that have been most affected by the decrease in part-time students? 

Dr Val
Dr Val says:
13 February 2018 at 11:44

I was a part-time MSc student from 2002 to 2004.  Now I would not even have started that course.  As a part-time lab tech in a school I could never have paid the fees as they are now and as a mature student with an UG degree I would not have been eligible for any kind of help.  I am glad I did as I managed to get back into academia and a much more interesting (and better paid) job.  One hurdle I had to overcome at the time was the timetabling of my course.  Although it was advertised as possible to do part time there was no flexibility or even consistency in the times when modules ran, and fitting round my job was only possible due to the extreme good nature of my employers.  Timetables were random, changed at the last minute, never took any notice of the requirements of PT students (or indeed staff).  It is worse now with fewer staff and no attention is given to the needs of PT students at all.  With compulsory modules to attend, I was constantly having to alter my working hours.  I know this would have been different if my employer had sent me on the course but it would still have been hard to fit work around the course in any sensible way.  There must be a way to do this.  I have seen MSc courses which run as intensive, full time, but short modules (say over two weeks) for example, although this would not have worked for me as I was not allowed time off during term time.

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