Why is this equity important? Around one in five undergraduate students in England currently study part-time. However, over the last six years the part-time student body has declined by almost 40%.
While the reasons for the decline in part-time higher education are likely to be complex, high costs and limited access to financial support are thought to play a significant role.
What is interesting is that what has been happening in England has not been seen in other leading higher education systems. In the US and Australia, two countries with broadly comparable levels of tuition fees charged and financial support available to students, part-time education is thriving.
Between 2005 and 2013, the numbers of part-time undergraduate students in the US and Australia increased by over 40% and over 20% respectively.
Source: National Centre for Education Statistics (US), Australian Government Higher education statistics, HESA student record.
The US and Australian higher education systems both have relatively high tuition fees. But at the same time, students can access loans and a range of grants and scholarships to support themselves during their studies.
The US more or less offers the same level of support to full- and part-time students. Part-time students are eligible for the same federal student loans and grants, as well as most state or institutional scholarships and other forms of support. Sixty-two per cent of part-time students in the US choose to take out financial aid. Many of those students may not have been able to study part time had it not been for the availability of study loans and grants.
In Australia part-time students can access the same tuition fee loans as their full-time peers. However, eligibility for maintenance support is more restricted for part-time than full-time students.
What really distinguishes Australia from England is the fact that in Australia, students taking a second degree are eligible for tuition fee loans.
Of course, government financial support and the level of tuition fees charged may not entirely explain why part-time education in Australia and the US is rising, while numbers are declining in England (and in other European countries).
Better promotion of part-time pathways and employers' willingness to contribute to the costs of higher education courses likely play a role too. Taking the second of those factors, in the UK the proportion of part-time undergraduate students who had help from employers towards tuition fees has fallen by almost 20% since 2011–12.
The Department for Education's consultation offers an opportunity to now address the specific issue of a lack of maintenance support for part-time students in England. Introducing this support would go some way towards making part-time study a more viable option for prospective students seeking ways to learn with greater flexibility.