The OU is renewing its call for urgent action by the UK Government after new figures showed a further year-on-year fall in the number of part-time students in England.
Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed a 14 per cent drop in the number of people starting undergraduate courses in England between 2015/16 and 2016/17*. This means that there are now 59 per cent fewer part-time undergraduate entrants than there were in 2011/12.
A dramatic acceleration in falling numbers
HESA’s latest bulletin appears to confirm earlier warnings from the OU that part-time higher education – a vital engine for social mobility – is facing a crisis in England.
The number of part-time students has fallen by around a half in the past five years. Although numbers were already declining, the most dramatic acceleration followed the decision by the UK Government’s university finance reforms of 2012/13.
“Working together to retain our existing workforce”
Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks, argued in a pamphlet** late last year that the UK Government should make tackling the collapse in part-time study the centrepiece of its promised review of university funding.
Following the HESA figures, he said: “It is now clearer than ever that part-time higher education needs urgent action. As a country, we are shooting ourselves in the foot because part-time study holds the key to tackling the skills shortages which threaten our economic competitiveness and productivity.”
Labour and skills shortages, likely only to worsen after Brexit, can only be fixed if the UK Government, industry and universities work together to retrain our existing workforce.
“A crucial first step will be for the new ministerial team at the Department for Education to ensure that flexible study options and earn and learn is covered as part of the tertiary review and that there is a fundamental rethink about how to support these forms of study.”
*The number of undergraduate part-time entrants in England was 107,325 in 2015/16 and 92,710 in 2016/17
**Peter Horrocks, Fixing the Broken Market in Part-Time Study, HEPI (2017) http://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Fixing-the-Broken-Market-in-Part-Time-Study-final.pdf