Open View: The Government must make part-time students a priority in its funding review

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In an increasingly sophisticated technological society the UK urgently needs to upgrade the skills profile of a very large proportion of its citizens; it has already shed most of its manufacturing jobs to low-cost economies and delivers more in the way of services. Part-time higher education provision has never been more critical in meeting the needs of Government and employers for a highly skilled workforce; soon there will be more part-time students in the UK than full-time and more students in the post 24-year-old age group than aged 18-24. And yet "part-time higher education provision is on a knife edge and requires immediate attention". So said Nigel Brown at a recent Universities UK (UUK) Conference when presenting the results of his survey into the issues faced by part-time providers.

The survey, commissioned by Universities UK, sets down a very powerful story: part-time study, it points out, has been growing three times faster than full-time but growth is now levelling off, if not declining. Part-time undergraduates are price sensitive and there is a real risk of a substantial fall-off in demand if fees are set too high. Add to this the fact that unaffordable costs are a real barrier to participation for nearly half of all students (and particularly for low-income students, lone parents and women) and the potential for part-time provision to diminish and opportunities for higher education to be lost to many comes closer to a present reality. Last year the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Department for Education and Skills took a step towards making higher education more widely accessible by allocating an additional £40m for two years to encourage participation and improve provision for part-time students from the most under-represented and low-income groups. This was a good first step.

In light of their findings the authors of the UUK study recommend that the Government re-examines the scope of public support for part-time students both in terms of its value and eligibility criteria, and urges it to make part-time study a significant element in its review of the impact of variable fees in 2009. The predominant and increasingly urgent issue for the continued health of the part-time sector - and indeed the UK economy - has to be the need to restore the balance of funding between part-time and full-time study. In the words of Nigel Brown: "For many part-time students, the alternative to part-time study would not be full-time study but not studying at all." In a global and increasingly competitive market we cannot afford to lose momentum - or students - by adopting a "wait and see" approach in which universities are left to carry all the risks until 2009 and beyond.

Open Eye: The monthly bulletin of the Open University Community

The Open University (OU) is the UK's only university dedicated to distance learning. We have around 150,000 undergraduate and more than 30,000 postgraduate students and 14,000 staff members. More than two million people have studied a course with the Open University.

For OU courses information call 0870 333 4340 ; or see www.open.ac.uk/courses

Editorial team:

Editor: Yvonne Cook

Assistant Editor: Peter Taylor-Whiffen

E-mail: open-eye@open.ac.uk

Address: Open Eye, Communications, The Open University, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA

Published with The Independent on the first Tuesday of the month. The next issue is out on 6 February 2007.

Comments