Is the future for young people part-time HE?

Newsletter articles

1 Sep 2012

Employment Studies Issue 16

Emma Pollard, Senior Research Fellow

Emma PollardThis is a time of great change for the higher education (HE) sector, with reforms to tuition fees and student loans which will see up to a threefold increase in undergraduate fees but for the first time will extend eligibility for student loans to part-time students. HE students, their choices and experiences, are a key focus for the government and it is making changes to support more informed choices with the introduction of the Key Information Set this September - a standard and comprehensive set of information about courses (entry, experiences and outcomes) - launching the new National Careers Service and looking at ways to improve the application system. Change is also directed at institutions, with proposals to open up the market to allow a more diverse group of institutions to provide HE, whilst at the same time tightening controls over the number of places individual institutions can offer to better manage the continued expansion of HE at undergraduate level.

Diversity appears to be the current policy passion for HE, and diversity of provision is felt to offer better choices and experiences for students - an experience that meets the needs of students rather than those of institutions. Part-time study is an essential element of diversity: part-time study and part-time students are a significant and interesting element of HE which has tended to be overlooked by policy makers and relatively under-researched. Until now.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) commissioned IES to undertake research to build a picture of the provision or supply of part-time HE and of the issues relating to the demand for part-time study, and specifically to explore whether part-time undergraduate study can be expanded as an alternative model of study for young students (those aged 22 and under). Could potential students be persuaded to study part-time?

Building a picture of part-time study

Our research shows that part-time study is indeed an alternative to the traditional three-or four-year model of full-time study, which offers not just one 'alternative' way of engaging with HE but a wide range of options and experiences. It can involve studying online, studying in the evenings and weekends, short intense bursts of study through summer schools, studying in further education colleges, or sitting alongside full-time students in university lecture theatres. At its best it can offer students a rewarding tailor-made experience, where students can study at the speed, time, location and level that suits them, allowing them to fit study around other work, family and life commitments and interests. Students report that studying part-time builds or at least maintains their employability, allows those in work to keep on working, and to earn whilst they learn and therefore manage study costs.

Over the past 10 years the numbers of part-time students have been growing and currently almost 600,000 people are studying part-time at undergraduate level in universities and colleges across the UK, representing one third of all undergraduate students. More than 140 HE institutions and an even greater number of further education colleges offer part-time HE level study, but the largest and most well known is the Open University, which has almost 200,000 part-time students. The vast majority of part-time students are mature students - indeed 80 per cent are aged 25 or over - women outnumber men by two to one, part-time students are more likely than full-time students to come from areas where participation in HE is low, and half already have HE-level qualifications and so are returning to study for a second bite.

Expanding part-time study

A range of factors can affect demand for part-time study among potential students, and these are inter-related and can simultaneously suppress and encourage part-time study. Demand can be affected by the economic climate and the subdued labour market, which may make it harder for people to earn and could deter employers from sponsoring HE-level training, but at the same time it can lead individuals to consider undertaking further study to improve their chances in the jobs market. The trend towards increasing occupational regulation stimulates demand for updating and certifying skills and knowledge which could be achieved through HE study, particularly amongst those looking to enhance rather than start their careers.

The financial support now available for part-time students could increase demand as it helps individuals financially and has the additional benefit of legitimising part-time as a form of study (on a par with full-time study). However, our calculations suggest that only one third of part-time undergraduate students would meet the eligibility conditions to allow them to access the support. As full-time fees increase, part-time study with its lower (though generally pro-rata) fees may appear to be a cheaper option.

Change in attitudes is needed

The biggest challenge, however, is attitudinal. Part-time study suffers from an ill-informed yet pervasive negative image amongst young people, who feel that part-time study is for older people and not for them. They feel strongly that it takes too long and therefore delays career entry, is not valued by employers, and provides a second-class experience for those who are not 'up to' full-time study. The evidence collected from young people is that HE study is about leaving home, meeting new people, trying new experiences and immersing themselves in their study - for them this means studying full-time for three or four years. Hence only three per cent of young people intending to go on to HE plan to study part-time. To increase interest in part-time study among most young people will therefore require: a significant shift in attitudes; investment in career education and advice targeted at young people, their teachers and parents in order to promote the full range of HE options and legitimise the part-time study mode; and a change in the part-time package so that it offers the experience that young people expect.

The changing context for HE is the topic of this year's IES policy conference, and the Institute has drawn together experts from a range of backgrounds to debate the future direction of and ambitions for HE in this turbulent time.

  • For more information on this work, please contact Emma Pollard at IES.