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Pay attention to part-time, report demands

The needs of part-time students have never been more pressing, a report by the OU and the Higher Education Policy Institute finds.

The wide-ranging report from the HE thinktank and the OU considers the sharp decline in the numbers of part-time learners, hearing the views of the people themselves.

Author Dr John Butcher presents Unheard: Voices of part-time adult learners, offering rare and revealing evidence on why this demographic are facing difficulties and feel hampered from studying in HE.

Universities need part-time students to ensure diversity, the report says

The paper highlights the facts about declining part-time numbers:

  • Between 2011/12 and 2017/18, there was a 60% fall in the number of people from England starting a part-time undergraduate course within the UK.
  • This contributed towards an overall 21% drop in the number of people from England starting undergraduate study.
  • And it brought about a 16% decline in the number of new undergraduate students from England from low participation areas.

Dr Butcher, responsible for access at The Open University, said:

‘The collapse in part-time learning means individuals lose out and universities are less interesting places.”

“Part-time learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and to share characteristics associated with widening participation.

“First in the family to engage with higher education”

“They are more likely than full-time students to be on low household incomes, to declare a disability, to possess low or alternative prior entry qualifications and to be the first in their family to engage with higher education.

“They are exactly the widening participation students universities should be falling over themselves to attract. Most part-timers will be limited to provision local to where they live and work, so are the group potentially most aligned with a university’s role in civic engagement.”

Dr Butcher asks “What we can learn?” from those learners who do manage to overcome countless obstacles and engage successfully with higher education?

The voices of part-time learners captured in the report reveal three areas of particular concern to part-time learners.

  • past experiences which have kept them from learning
  • the worry about the cost of study
  • fitting in with “inflexible” higher education institutions.

Making policy “part-time aware”

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

“Recent reforms to higher education are meant to have introduced a student-centred system. But people who want, or need, to study part-time have less choice than they did. The removal of some public funding in 2008, the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 and the withdrawal of some courses have had a terrible combined impact.

“We are good at producing data in higher education but we are sometimes less good at listening to the voices of learners, which can teach us so much. Boosting part-time study would help fill skills shortages and help the life chances of individuals. If we change direction, we can have a clear win:win.”

Those voices of learners are apparent and presented throughout the report. Telling real life situations of the power of study. One said of doing university study:

“I signed up and it invigorated the love of learning that I hadn’t had for about ten years. It built on things I may have missed out at school … I really wanted to get back on track with my life really.”

The paper ends with a series of policy recommendations aimed at making policy more part-time aware. It includes considering such students within the context of their busy lives and appreciating their background of experience and prior learning. And it asks the sector to think outside of a rigid “one-size-fits-all” model and to offer flexibility.

About Author

Christine is a manager in the Media Relations team within the Marcomms Unit at the OU. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She is doing an MA in Philosophy with The Open University; she focuses on FASS stories and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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