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The government needs to support part-time study

Love part time quote
I’m getting really exercised about what’s happening to part-time study in higher education. Whereas we have seen applications from 18-year-olds hold up in spite of the introduction of £9k fees, there has been a huge fall in the numbers of part-time students: 143,000 fewer entrants to part-time undergraduate study in 2013–14 compared to 2010–11. And the decline continues. Recent figures show that between 2013–14 and 2014–15 there was a further fall of 10%, bringing the total fall to 55% on 2010–11 numbers. Across the board, further education colleges and universities are pulling out of providing part-time courses.

Therefore it is great to see the #LovePartTime campaign taking place on social media this month. The campaign has been encouraging current and former part-time students to tell the world why they love part-time study – what it has done for them and what it has enabled them to do. I hope any readers of this blog with experience of part-time study will lend their support.

The reasons for the fall in part-time numbers are complex but include mature students being more wary than their younger counterparts about taking on the increased student loan debt; the fact that the loans are on less favourable terms than for full-timers; and the fact that support is only available to those studying for a qualification higher than the one(s) they already have. This latter restriction has made it difficult for those wanting to use part-time study to switch careers (eg from a teacher to a social worker) and needing to acquire a different degree to do so. The government has relaxed this for STEM subjects, but it still leaves a yawning gap.

More than anything else, I feel cross at the failure of government to see the big picture. The job market has changed so much. Gone are the careers for life. Technology is moving so fast; there is obvious need to retrain and/or upgrade skills during a lifetime. We have an ageing population and we are expecting people to go on working into their late 60s if not 70s. We therefore have to find some way by which people can upgrade their skills in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Traditionally, the way to do this has been through part-time study and as recently as 2010 over half a million people were studying part time for higher education qualifications, many of them in vocational areas. Business recognised and valued this. But with the dramatic drop in numbers over the last few years further education colleges and universities are increasingly closing courses which they find are just not viable.

It is all so nonsensical. Here is a government that says it is intent on tackling low productivity and skills shortages, and yet is blocking one of the obvious routes to help ease the problem.

That’s why we should all get behind the #LovePartTime campaign and put pressure on the government to support and protect part-time study in England just as the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have managed to do in their different ways. It is vital that the part-time route to higher education remains open – and flourishes. If things go on as they are, there is a grave danger that it will disappear altogether.

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