Why #PartTimeMatters

A copy of the 2015 edition of the Open University’s magazine “OpenMinds – for enquiring alumni” was waiting for me when I arrived home this evening. There’s some great content in it – for example, articles on the Philae Lander, driverless cars and research into social exclusion, all of which OU academics and alumni have contributed significantly to. All this success makes the leading article written by the OU’s new vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, a particularly disturbing read.

Peter points out that five years ago before the changes to university funding in England (a.k.a. the trebling of undergraduate tuition fees), more than 580,000 people across the UK were studying for a degree part-time. In 2014 this number fell to just under 370,000. England has borne the brunt of the decline, with a 41% decrease. Even though the OU says that it has managed to grow its market share, the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate OU students is down by approximately 60,000 in this period.

The obstacles being put in the way of access to part-time learning in England come at a point in history when the 9-5 job for life has gone, replaced more typically with 5-9 jobs during a working lifetime. The ability for adults to learn new skills has therefore never been more important. However, the costs for those who have a degree that needs updating or who dropped out of university first time around are becoming increasingly prohibitive. The OU does provide excellent value at £2,700 per 60 credits (£16,200 for a degree instead of the more usual £27,000 at a ‘brick’ establishment), but four years ago, OU students in these categories would have only needed to find around £4,000-£5,000. One of the consequences of the last few years (in England, at any rate) is that university level education is no longer seen as being a public good – but a cost to the taxpayer that must be avoided, as education only benefits the individual receiving it. Which is a political choice of course, but utter nonsense. Just ask the Germans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, employers, who should be significant beneficiaries of investment in part-time learning, now appear reluctant to directly fund their employees. Figure 14 on page 26 of this Universities UK report shows that the number of employer-funded part-time undergraduate students dropped from just over 40,000 in 2011-12 to around 22,000 in 2012-13.

For someone without a degree there have been some crumbs of comfort, as non-means tested loans have now been made available to part-time learners in England. However, part-time students are still not treated equally, as their repayments start after four years of study (2/3rds of the way through a three-year degree), rather than after graduation.

The tuition fee reforms of the coalition government were bad enough for the part-time sector and those who wished to use it. However, the apparent intent of the current Conservative government to go back on their promise to uprate the £21,000 salary threshold for student loan repayments (in effect increasing the financial burden on recent graduates and nearly-graduates still further), along with their manifesto pledge to divert FE funding for mature learners to apprenticeships, look set to damage the interests of part-time, mature students still further.

In his article, Peter Horrocks asks all OU alumni to “… join the whole OU community and help fight for part-time eduction. [and to] Tell friends, family and anyone of influence about the frightening fall in part-time numbers and create an imperative to tackle the problem.

I’m fairly sure that the contents of this blog, from when I started it in 2008, witnesses to the power of part-time education in my own life. And as this video says, the most important thing that everyone learns at the OU is what they’re capable of.

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Reader Comments

  1. David

    Tim, I was an Republic of Ireland Open University student. When the fees increased in England I decided to discontinue study with the University. £2700 per 60 point course was a substantial increase to Euro 3510 per 60 point course or Euro 21060. No part time student loans and the potential for ongoing currency fluctuations. Not really a great investment.

  2. Christine

    I finished my OU degree back in 2006 when 60 point courses only cost around £600. The 6 years spent studying with the OU were an important part of my life but I wouldn’t start a part-time degree today. I can understand that the courses need to be paid for but if studying for personal reasons rather than work I couldn’t justify the repayment costs.

    • tim

      Hi Christine,

      Thanks for the comment. It also made me check (and revise!) my maths. 4 or so years ago, the cost of 360 points with the OU as an England resident student (on most OU undergraduate degree courses) would have been around £4,000-£5000, not £6,000 as I’d written originally.

      Learning for personal development reasons is definitely becoming a much rarer reason for study, which is a shame, as things that start off as study for personal reasons have this habit of positively affecting people’s careers too. It was certainly my experience that studying psychology has had all kinds of unexpected benefits for me at work.

      Maybe I should investigate the yearly costs & benefits of OU study other “hobbies” – e.g. gym membership, golf, horse riding, motor racing, climbing, knitting, stamp collecting, train spotting … and write a comparative blog post? The relative change in costs over the years might be interesting – and I suspect rather depressing.

  3. Callie Carling

    *sigh* I can’t begin to tell you how much thought I’ve put into returning to study as a mature student, or how worried I am about being able to fund myself all the way through my chosen study path …

    I begin studying with the Open University this October, beginning a BA (Hons) Psychology degree, with a view to completing a Masters at the end of that, in order that I can work (in my mid-50s! God willing!) as an Art Psychotherapist. Rules have changed with the OU, so that the first year of study you can only take on a 30-credit course, so I’ve paid up front for that. But I’m dreading 2016, 2017 and 2018 when I want to take 2 x 30-credit courses … and the Masters fees are enough to make my hair curl!

    *whoops* I do have curly hair already … but you know what I mean!

    The irony that I will be paying a student loan fee off well into my 60’s and 70’s is not lost, but I am so deeply committed to my chosen path of study and learning, I will do whatever it takes. Thanks so much for sharing more about the political angle, Tim. Another great, informative article about a subject very dear to my heart!

    • tim

      Hi Callie,

      Thanks for the comment and I hope you enjoy the journey you’re about to embark on as much as I did a few years ago. Your plans sound really exciting!

      All the best,

      Tim.

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