Last year there was a 26.6% decline in the numbers of part-time university students

… starting courses  and the decline is 37% from just two years ago. David Willetts is apparently so concerned that he’s asked Eric Thomas, the Universities UK president and Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, to investigate the causes of this decline and to report back in the autumn.

I suspect Mr. Thomas will come to the conclusion that a number of factors are responsible. Here are my thoughts as to what he’ll find.

My first observation is that the decline in part-time student numbers seems to mirror the overall decline in mature students applying to go to university since the new fees regime was introduced. Although tuition fee loans are now available for the first time for part-time study (regardless of age), they’re only available if you’re not studying for an equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ). I suspect that the tripling of undergraduate fees has put off just about everyone that falls into this category. Something will need to be done (loans for all?) if we’re going to enable people to re-skill and retrain through higher education as they go through their working life. And, of course, working lives for most people are going to become much longer, whether we want them to or not.

Secondly, the general economic situation can’t be helping those who want to study part-time. I suspect that a number of employers are putting pressure on their staff to work longer hours (particularly if they’re salaried with a “no paid overtime” clause in their contracts) with those in part-time jobs having to work longer hours or take more than one to make ends meet. Working longer hours clearly eats into time available for part-time study – especially if you have a family to look after as well.

Thirdly, I wonder how many employers are still choosing to sponsor their staff through part-time higher education? This has obviously become more expensive for employers with the rise in fees, but I also suspect that the political climate which is rewarding companies that set up apprenticeship schemes is also having an impact in diverting funds away from sponsoring employees through part-time university courses.

Finally, the rise of MOOCs may well have something to do with the decline as well. For example, many Open University students used to take courses purely for personal improvement. While this was a reasonably priced option for some (with a 60 credit course taken over 9 months costing around £700-£800), the current £2,500 fee for new students must have driven many of these students onto these free offerings. Some of these offerings are better than others, however.

I’m not sure that Mr Thomas really needs months to investigate the cause of the decline – and I’m not sure that David Willetts really needs him to either. Reviews of this kind are usually simply a substitute for action, if you believe that a decline of more than 80,000 part-time students per year in two years is something to be worried about.

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