Decline in UK Part-Time Enrolments a Cause for Concern

A first release of 2016 from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has shown a continuing decline in higher education enrolment figures at UK institutions. The decline is particularly pronounced in part-time enrolments, adding to ongoing concerns in this regard.

Total enrolments fell by 1% to 2,266,075 in the 2014/15 academic year; the fourth consecutive year of decline since 2010/11’s high of 2,503,010. The most-drastic drop of 6% was reported in 2012/13, the year from which increased tuition rates applied – also, notably, the year in which we saw the lowest level of first-year enrolments.

While postgraduate and full-time enrolment levels did not change between 2013/14 and 2014/15, undergraduate enrolments fell by 2%. It is part-time enrolments, however, in which we see the most worrying figures in terms of recruitment, with a 6% decline in the space of a year. Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), believes this bodes ill with regard in terms of access.

“This is part of a deeply worrying trend which has seen drastic year-on-year reductions in people choosing to study part-time. With many part-time students seeking to boost their qualifications in order to change or further their careers this reduction is bad news for our economy and society as a whole,” he reflects in a press release from OFFA.

“Universities and colleges must take urgent steps to arrest this decline. If sustained action is not taken now, it may be too late to reverse the trend. This will mean many talented people who missed out on the traditional route into full-time study aged 18 find their route to a second chance at study cut off.”

He praises the UK government, however, on the provision of loans for part-time study (of at least 25% of the ‘intensity’ of a full-time program and at a higher level than any qualifications previously held by the borrower), but suggests that they might offer such assistance in ‘bite-size’ chunks to allow prospective part-time students to get a taste of what they’re signing up for, rather than being put off by having to commit fully.

Decline is part of long-term trend

This is not a new problem in UK higher education. Indeed, the decline in 2013/14 was 7% (new enrollees in part-time study stand at less than half of the equivalent figure in 2010/11 so this trend will no doubt continue as students who have been in the system longer graduate), leading Ebdon to reflect last year that this represented “a significant challenge for policy makers”, adding that underrepresented groups in higher education are the most likely to choose part-time study.

In October, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a collection of essays, entitled It’s the finance, stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do about it, looking at the causes and consequences of declining enrolment in the part-time space, as well as what could be done about it. Inflexibility, the poor dissemination of information and – of course – sharply increased fees are all identified as causes, while engaging employers and allowing greater choice in provision are among the touted solutions.

Again though, this is old news. Two years previously, Universities UK published a review of part-time higher education, which as well as celebrating the power of part-time provision, was already looking at ways to address a decline that was already evident two years after 2010/11’s high. Raising the profile of part-time provision, particularly by communicating the availability of funding, as well as providing a first port of call through UCAS (equivalent to that available to full-time undergraduate students) and improving available information on government-run course finder, Unistats, were among the recommendations. Universities were encouraged to do more locally to promote study, and in the frankest of the recommendations, to step up their game in terms of part-time provision.

It seems that in the intervening years, not enough of these recommendations have been taken on board. It cannot be ascribed to lower levels of demand. The noise around MOOCs has not gone away, and we can now take it as a truism that there is a growing appetite for flexible provision among prospective and current students. In the world of business education, short executive education courses have become the real cash cows for wealthy business schools. These courses though, often costing somewhere in the five-figure bracket and focused largely on business education, cater for a very small demographic. On the other hand, it seems like there is a considerable market of people for whom full-time study is not an option yet who no longer feel part-time study is a viable option either.

Last summer, the new dean of the Open University – obviously hit hard by the trend, finding itself with a £17 million deficit and 28% reduction in student numbers in the time period at which we’re looking, called for the government to do something to arrest the decline. But higher education institutions have a part to play too, and perhaps must move to dispel the notion of part-time provision as the poor relation of full-time study. And let us not forget employers, who in hiring graduates, and facilitating and even funding part-time study, form a key part of the puzzle.

Whoever is to blame, it is hopefully not too controversial to say it seems these would-be students are being let down by UK higher education.

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