Education system must change to support flexible study

Shorter and more flexible courses could encourage more people of all ages to improve their skills and life chances at university

A generation of 'lost learners' are missing out on the chance to develop the skills at university that employers and the UK economy need, because of the cost and time it takes to study part-time.

This is one of the main findings of a project set up by Universities UK (UUK) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) earlier this year to look at the decline in part-time student enrolments and the changing needs of students and employers.

In a joint statement to government and the current review of post-18 education and funding in England, UUK and the CBI recommend:

  • Evolution of the Apprenticeship Levy into a more flexible 'Skills Levy' so that it can cover a wider range of training, including more flexible study

  • Greater support for students moving between work and study across their lifetimes, with the education system supporting shorter and more flexible courses

  • More collaboration between employers and higher and further education, to help learners progress on to qualifications between A-levels and a university degree.

Between 2010–11 and 2016–17, there has been a drop of more than one third (37%) in the number of people studying part-time across the UK.

A Universities UK survey of 'lost learners' – those who considered, but did not end up completing, a part-time higher education course from academic year 2010/11 onwards – found that:

  • Just over half of lost learners were aged between 25-44 years of age and in full-time work. Around half held A-levels or lower as their highest qualification

  • A lack of flexibility around life commitments and work during study was one of the top reasons for lost learners not starting part-time higher education, and the most common reason for dropping out of study

  • Other reasons included costs of tuition and living costs when studying on a part-time basis.

Professor Julie Lydon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Wales and chair of the project's advisory group, said: "For many years, discussion about higher education has focused only on the traditional route of school leavers heading away to study full-time at university for three or four years. 

"The evidence from this project shows there is significant demand from learners and employers for more flexible learning, where learners combine study with work, and other life commitments. Learning and improved life chances should not stop when you reach your 20s. It must continue over a lifetime.

"If the UK is to succeed in future, with the challenges of Brexit, rapid technological advances and an ageing population, more people of all ages should be going to university to upskill, retrain and develop the higher-level skills employers need.

"As the way we work changes, government must change the education system to better support universities offering shorter and more flexible courses, in order to better meet the needs of learners and employers."

Matthew Fell, CBI's UK Policy Director, said: "Investing in our skills base is the best strategy for growth a nation can have.

"The findings of this project are clear. We need to raise overall levels of education and skills in the workforce. Universities need to play a critical role in responding to the changing world of work by offering education and training for learners for whom a three-year bachelor's degree doesn't quite fit their circumstances.

"Too often we think of universities as being just for young people, but as this work shows, adult education and lifelong learning matter just as much. There are some fantastic examples of how the university sector is already responding to these challenges, but now is the time to take it to the next level."


  1. Universities UK launched the project (in February 2018) to look at how more flexible ways of learning could meet the changing needs of students and employers. The project was set up to look at the issue from three perspectives: from learners, higher education providers and employers. And then to develop policy recommendations. Evidence on the employer perspective was produced in partnership with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
  2. The employer perspective: views from employers were primarily sought through the CBI's trade associations. Responses represent the views of around 5,500 different organisations across different industries, from manufacturing and engineering through to the creative and digital sectors. These views are summarised in the briefing 'Skills needs in England – the employer perspective'. The CBI and UUK have produced a joint statement with policy recommendations.
  3. The learner perspective: the report on 'Lost learners' was produced by Portland Consulting for the project. It surveyed the views of 835 adults who considered part-time study since 2010, but decided not to enrol or complete their studies. Their report covers the characteristics of this group (age, intended qualification, reason for considering part-time study), why they did not pursue or complete part-time study, and their career outcomes following their decision.
  4. The higher education provider perspective: evidence was gathered from advisory group members the wider UUK membership and from a public call for evidence. This evidence, is summarised in the briefing 'Flexible learning in the UK: the current state of play in higher education'.
  5. The project was shaped and received evidence from an advisory group of Vice-Chancellors, led by Professor Julie Lydon, Vice Chancellor of the University of South Wales. Other members include: Professor Liz Barnes (Staffordshire), Professor Chris Day (Newcastle), Professor Jenny Higham (St Georges, University of London), Professor Debra Humphris (Brighton), Professor Mary Kellett (The Open University), Professor David Latchman (Birkbeck, University of London), Professor Kathryn Mitchell (Derby), Professor Craig Mahoney (University of the West of Scotland), and Professor David Phoenix (London South Bank University). Guild HE and the Association of Colleges were observers on the advisory group.

Key Contacts

Steven Jefferies

Steven Jefferies

Head of Media
Universities UK

Eloise Phillips

Eloise Phillips

Media Officer
Universities UK

Clara Plackett

Clara Plackett

Senior Media Officer
Universities UK


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