Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE)
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Sharp fall in part-time higher education linked to economic factors and public policy changes

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) today publishes a new report, ‘Pressure from all sides: Economic and policy influences on part-time higher education’ [Note 1]. It shows that the sharp decline in part-time study since 2010-11 in publicly-funded higher education is likely to have been influenced by the recession, its aftermath, and public policy changes.

Numbers of part-time UK and EU undergraduate entrant numbers in 2013-14 are almost half what they were in 2010-11. Overall numbers fell by 120,000 – from 259,000 in 2010-11 to 139,000 in 2013-14.

The report links the decline to a number of economic factors which, combined with public policy changes, have exerted continuous downward pressure on demand for part-time courses over the past five years.

Funding for people studying for qualifications equivalent or lower to one they already have (ELQs) was withdrawn at the start of the recession in 2008-09. This was followed by the austerity measures in on the public sector. Previous research shows that the majority of part-time students work in the public sector, and are likely to have been affected by these reductions. Changes to financial support for undergraduate part-time study in 2012-13 also led to increases in undergraduate part-time fees, although less than a third of part-time students are estimated as eligible for fee loans [Note 3].

Factors affecting the decline in part-time higher education between 2008-09 and 2012-13

Other findings include:

  • There is a strong relationship between unemployment rates and take-up of part-time education. The North East of England has seen the highest unemployment rate and the largest decline in entry to part-time higher education. There is also a strong relationship between public sector employment and entry to part-time education.
  • The numbers of UK and EU entrants with direct financial backing from their employers for undergraduate part-time study fell sharply from 40,000 in 2011-12 to 23,000 in 2012-13. The decline is linked to fee increases for part-time study, difficult economic conditions, and reductions in public sector budgets. A similar pattern is seen at postgraduate level, where there has been a significant fall in the number of entrants in education-related subjects.
  • There is generally greater variability in fees charged for part-time courses than for full-time courses. However, there is evidence that students wishing to study part time are more likely to be restricted in their study choices due to personal circumstances. This means that they may not be able to take advantage of this variability if they wanted to find a lower fee.
  • Part-time study appears to be more likely than full-time study to suffer in a recession – but this is not inevitable. Comparison across the UK nations shows lower declines in Scotland and Wales compared to England, and Northern Ireland bucked the trend to see increasing numbers of part-time students. This is despite the fact that the recession in England was less severe than in the rest of the UK. Around half of OECD countries saw declines in their part-time enrolments between 2010 and 2011.

 HEFCE Chief Executive Madeleine Atkins said:

‘There have been major declines in part-time higher education in recent years. However, trying to return to where we were in 2008 will not give us what we need in future – the economy, technologies and the wider world have changed. HEFCE will continue to support a higher education system characterised by quality and diversity, which helps equip students and employers to address the challenges and opportunities that face them.’

Channel website: https://www.icaew.com

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