Leading article: Why part-timers deserve better

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The Independent Online

Today's policy briefing from Universities UK on part-time students in higher education sheds some welcome light on an increasingly important section of the university world. Part-timers are the fastest-growing group in higher education, yet their needs have been largely neglected until recently. They have always had to pay fees, unlike full-timers, yet until last year, they received nothing in the way of financial help from the state.

The report shows that the new grants help only a minority. Many are excluded from financial support for reasons that have nothing to do with their economic circumstances, for example, the 46 per cent who already have a degree. Others are excluded because they are studying for less than 50 per cent of a full-time degree course. The Government will now be under pressure to bring part-timers more into line with full-timers.

The problem, however, is that the needs of part-timers are so different from their full-time counterparts that it is difficult for UUK to develop a policy of equality between the two. Part-time students differ hugely from full-timers in their age, socio-economic mix, educational background, and motivations for study. Many have family commitments and are constrained in how much time they can give to their studies. Many are older and at work.

Crucially, according to the surveys in the report, part-timers are unwilling to pay the kind of fees that students are now having to pay under the new fee regime. That means that a university that tries to increase its part-time fees to the pro-rata levels of the £3,000 top-up fee will suffer. Demand will fall off, and the result could be a loss of part-time courses and thus a reduction in opportunities for people.

The answer, you might think, would be to offer part-timers the same financial package as full-timers - no up-front fees, and repayment once they graduate and are earning £15,000. But, on the evidence of the report, part-timers don't want this. They don't want to take out loans. So, the way to encourage people to retrain or update their skills so as to compete in Gordon Brown's globally competitive economy is to relax the criteria for grants and subsidise courses so that costs don't rise unduly.