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."