Equality for part-timers!

Many students aren't the fresh-faced teenagers of old but mature adults aiming to improve their job prospects. Why, then, are they accorded second-class status? By Lucy Hodges
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Jerry Gordon is a social worker with Brent social services who has just completed a part-time degree in art history at Birkbeck, University of London. In fact, he has had two careers running in parallel as an artist and as a social worker. And he is a devotee of lifelong learning.

Jerry Gordon is a social worker with Brent social services who has just completed a part-time degree in art history at Birkbeck, University of London. In fact, he has had two careers running in parallel as an artist and as a social worker. And he is a devotee of lifelong learning.

At times, it has been a hand-to-mouth existence. He gave up social work for a while to pursue his interest in art. His annual £900 tuition-fee bill was funded by his income from contracts with social-service departments to run art workshops. At one time, however, that work dried up. "I went to Birkbeck and said that I would have to abandon the course because I couldn't pay the fees," explains Gordon, 49. "They said, 'Don't do that, we can get you a fee waiver'."

And so Gordon was able to continue with his studies, paying for his living costs by claiming state benefits and tapping a student loan. Undeterred by the financial struggle, he has now signed up for a part-time Masters in history of art. Gordon is one of a growing number of mature part-time students in Britain. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that part-timers make up 41.7 per cent of the student population, and that numbers rose to a record 406,550 in 2003/4, the latest year for which figures are available.

So, the general public, the media and politicians may imagine the typical student to be a fresh-faced 18-year-old, but that is far from the truth. Students are almost as likely to be a decade or two older and taking a degree to improve their career prospects or to change jobs. Everyone agrees that that is a good thing. Opening up higher education to people through part-time study in the evenings is good for the economy, regional regeneration and social cohesion.

Why, then, are part-time students treated differently from their full-time colleagues? The issue has come to a head because of the new top-up fee regime that is being introduced in 2006. From the autumn of that year, full-timers will pay £3,000 a year at most universities but will not have to pay a penny of that sum until they have graduated and are earning £15,000.

Part-timers, however, will not be part of that system. They won't be able to defer payment of their fees and they won't be entitled to the same grants and loans. Many universities are saying that this is unfair. It could mean that institutions raising fees for part-timers to a rate equivalent to the new £3,000 top-up fee will find their part-time student numbers falling.

If, however, they decide instead not to charge the pro-rata fee for part-time courses so as not to deter potential students, they will receive less fee income. The umbrella group for the new universities, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities (CMU), is sore about this on the grounds that its members are the institutions that take the most part-timers, thereby contributing more to widening access, improving employability and opening up more new opportunities to higher education than older universities. It is arguing strongly for part-time students to be able to defer payment of fees like full-timers.

But there are two "old" universities that are overwhelmingly part-time and therefore particularly vulnerable to losing out from the treatment of part-timers. They are Birkbeck and the Open University. The OU has 100 per cent part-time students and Birkbeck 96 per cent. "I am concerned about Birkbeck being left behind," says Professor David Latchman, master of the college. "And that part-time students are not going to get the benefits that they deserve even though they make up 40 per cent of student numbers."

Both Birkbeck and the OU have lobbied ministers to receive special treatment because of their student make-up. The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) was asked to look into this, but announced in March this year that it could see no reason why these two universities should receive special treatment when other universities also had many part-timers.

Earlier this month, 22 vice-chancellors of new universities, which take a lot of part-time students, tried to make the matter into an election issue. They wrote an open letter calling for equity of treatment for part-timers. According to Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University and one of the signatories, the matter is urgent. "These students are the forgotten minority," he says. "Although they are almost 42 per cent of the student body, they have been ignored. The Government has made the assumption that they are funded by employers. But at Luton, only 38 per cent are funded by employers."

Ebdon reckons that, nationally, fewer than one-third of part-timers are funded by employers. Luton is a particularly vocational university, so one would expect it to have more than average. The problem is that very little is known about part-time students.

Universities UK, the umbrella group for higher education, was all set to champion the cause of equality but found that it could not do so because of the difficulty of costing. In the absence of information about the factors that influence price levels in the part-time market, and the factors influencing students to take degrees part-time, they could not estimate the level of part-time demand for deferred fees. That, in turn, meant that it was difficult to predict the impact of deferring fees on the level of fees charged. So you could not budget for them.

As a result, UUK has commissioned a research project into part-timers. What worries observers is that it might be too late. "I agree that there is a need for research," says Latchman. "But we don't have the time to consider this at leisure because we will be faced, at Birkbeck, the OU and other universities, with the question, 'Do we put our fees up?', in 2006."

If Birkbeck charged the pro-rata rate, it would have to put fees up to £2,250 a year. But it has resolved not to do that, though it is expected to put them up from the £900 charged at the moment. It is waiting for the Hefce to look into giving fee support to low-income students who might otherwise be deterred from going to university. "We assume that Hefce will do that before 2006," says Latchman. Like other new universities, Luton has decided that it won't be able to charge the pro-rata rate of £1,200 for part-time students on the grounds that this would frighten them away. Instead it will be reviewing the way that it charges part-timers.

The University of Derby has also decided that its part-time market is unlikely to be able to sustain fees much higher than those currently paid. Teesside, too, has committed to keeping part-time fees at about current levels - an average of £600 a year. And the University of Central Lancashire has decided that it is too risky to put up its part-time fees in 2006, and is keeping them the same.

Latchman believes that a simple, transparent system should be introduced quickly for both full- and part-time students. All part-timers would be means-tested, as full-timers are, and all treated the same financially. Then we would finally get fairness - and Tony Blair's 50 per cent target might be met.

Tough lives: studying to better themselves

* Chris Locker, 23, is studying part-time for a degree in information systems at the University of Derby. He combines that with a part-time job as an IT technician at Utoxeter High School, which he attended when he was younger. He also runs his own business, an internet café and PC sales concern, which he is merging with a mobile-phone company. He pays his own tuition fees, the first half in the first semester and the second half in the second, because he can't afford to pay in one go.

"I do a 65-hour week at the school and on my business, and I fit my university work around that," says Locker.

"Fortunately, there are three of us working as IT technicians at the school. I can get quite a bit of my work out of the way during the day and then fit my degree work in at odd moments. Plus, I do a few late evenings.

I don't see why part-timers shouldn't have the same conditions as full-timers. Just because we are working doesn't mean that we are better off than full-time students. Many of them work, too. I really can't see why part-timers should be discriminated against in this way."

* Frances Dolby, 40, is taking an accounting degree part-time at Derby University under the auspices of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. She works full-time as a finance officer for a school, and attends the university two nights a week. She pays her fees out of her £19,000-a-year salary.

"It hasn't been easy but I did it to better myself," she explains. "A grant would certainly have come in handy. If the fees went up beyond the £1,000 that I pay now, I would have difficulty affording it. And other students would, too."