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The case for part-time study

30 June 2015
Peter Horrocks

Peter Horrocks

The Open University
Part time Arabic and Middle Eastern studies
While the number of students going to university full-time has risen, the part-time sector has experienced a sharp decline, wasting hundreds of thousands of lives, writes the Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks.

Over the coming weeks and months, the Government’s policies on higher education will start to take shape.  We already know some of the issues everyone will be talking about, with tuition fees and whether young people are getting value for money high on the list.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the focus is on school leavers – after all, this is the experience shared by the overwhelming majority of policy makers and the journalists who report on the sector.  But behind the rise in the number of full-time students lies a troubling picture for an increasingly critical part of our university system.

In England, the number of people studying part-time has dropped by 41% over the last five years, with 200,000 fewer part-time students than in 2009/10.  It would be very easy – as many people do – to put this decline down to the recent recession.  But take a look at other parts of the UK and you’ll see that simply isn’t the case.   Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all suffered the same economic downturn, but the decline in part-time students in these nations is a fraction of that seen in England, where policy and funding changes over the last five years have had a major impact.

Take the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rule, for example, which means students aren’t eligible for a loan if they already hold a qualification of the same level to the one they’re studying.  We know that many of those wishing to study part-time are already in work and are looking to retrain or up-skill.  Yet if they already have a degree – quite possibly following a decision they took when they were 18 – they are unable to access the same financial support as other students.  With the population living and working longer, we need to ask if the decisions we expect our children to take at 18 are necessarily the right ones for a career which will last 50 years, and enable them to adapt to the ever-changing technological and social skills required to respond to changes in the workplace.

David Willetts started the process of reversing the ELQ rule by introducing limited exemptions in 2013, but by fully reversing it, the new Conservative Government can show real commitment to being the “party of hard-working people”.

While we’re on the subject of part-time students being in work, it’s worth taking a moment to look at their contribution to the economy.  Without getting too technical, there’s been a lot of debate over the RAB charge lately, or the proportion of loan outlay that will never be repaid by graduates.  The Government’s most recent estimate on this for part-time students is around 65%, however research carried out by London Economics on behalf of Million+ actually places this figure at -7%, meaning that part-time students are not only more likely to repay their loan, but will deliver a return on the investment made in their study.

But part-time study isn’t just about making sure the country and our economy has the skills it needs to thrive and compete on the world stage, it’s about offering a chance to students who have just as much drive and desire to learn, but for whom full-time study is not possible for a whole range of reasons.  Take disabled students, for example.  At The Open University, around 20,000 of our students have declared a disability – that’s more disabled students than many universities have on their whole campus.

Much of this work is made possible by the Student Opportunity Allocation, which the Government makes available to enable institutions to widen access to higher education.  If recent reports are to be believed, this pot of over £300m is likely to come under strong downward pressure.  If that help isn’t there, we lose the ability to help at scale some of those disadvantaged yet most ambitious in our society – just the sort of people we know MPs are concerned about.

There are other ways Government can support part-time study – for example enabling students to transfer their credit between institutions or smoothing the transition from FE to higher education.  However, the most important thing is that, as ministers take stock of the task ahead of them, they remember this: part-time students are by far and away the best bet for our country.  Not only are the majority already in work and therefore ready to start paying back loans, they are also the ones with the drive, determination and skills our country needs.

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