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

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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.

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