Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are being let down by the university system in England, new figures show.
A Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) assessment showed a further annual decrease of two per cent in the overall number of disadvantaged students. Although the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds starting full-time courses went up by three per cent, the number choosing to study part-time was down by 14 per cent.
"Not the full picture"
The picture over five years is even more stark – showing a 17 per cent reduction in the overall number of disadvantaged students entering university in England. During that period the 10 per cent rise in full-time students from these backgrounds was massively overshadowed by a 54 per cent decline in part-time students.
The Open University wants to work with the new Office for Students to ensure it prioritises the needs of students from all types of disadvantaged backgrounds.
Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of the OU, said: “While the increase in the number of full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university in England is welcome, the figures do not give the full picture.
"In fact, the numbers overall of students from these backgrounds have fallen by a shocking 17% since 2011/12. This is due entirely to the fall in the numbers of people studying part-time in England.
“Part-time and mature students are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and often studying part-time is their only option. So the sharp drop in part-time students in England is actually undermining the UK Government’s efforts to open up higher education.
He added: "It also has an economic impact because as we struggle to overcome skills shortages, part-time and distance learning by people already in work will be increasingly important in driving productivity.
"Focus on lifelong learning"
“The OU believes it is vital that the UK Government ensures that its review of tertiary education focuses on the crucial importance of lifelong learning to our future economic success, and that the new Office for Students looks at securing a better deal for older learners as a matter of urgency.”
HESA revealed in January that the overall number of part-time students in England has now fallen by 59 per cent in just five years.
An OU analysis suggested that the changes in the university funding system in England in 2012 was the main cause of the drop.