Part-time students: aspiring, broke and in need of help

A report out today sheds new light on part-time students, showing that they are often trapped in poverty and unable to claim the grants that are available. Lucy Hodges reports
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Andrew Shippey, 30, is exactly the kind of person that ministers want in higher education: bright, personable, ambitious, and determined to improve his skills and better himself. Having left school at 16 without A-levels, he is now a part-time student of psychology at the University of Teesside, an institution at which more than half (52 per cent) the students are part-time.

The reason - in his case, and in many others - is that he has to work. Married with three children, Shippey has a job with Middlesbrough Council. Until recently, he worked in a care home looking after elderly and mentally ill people for £12,000. This year, he switched to work as a tenancy officer helping private landlords. His pay has risen to the princely sum of just over £16,000 a year.

But this promotion has, if anything, made it harder for him to get his degree, because he thinks that he will now lose out on fee remission and a small study grant. ""I can afford to complete the BSc, but only just," he laughs.

"It is unclear whether I will get any financial assistance from Aimhigher [the government programme to widen participation]. In my old job, they paid the fees and gave me something towards books. Now, because I am earning more than £15,000, I have lost the Working Families' Tax Credit and may lose the support I was receiving as a part-time student."

The anomalies and hardships faced by Shippey and other part-time students are highlighted in a report published today by Universities UK, which shows that more than 40 per cent of students are part-time. They are among the most needy undergraduates - often on low pay like Shippey and with family commitments - yet they receive less help than conventional full-timers.

Until now, very little has been known about part-timers. Today's UUK report fills in the gaps, shedding light on who part-time students are and scotching some of the myths about them. Based on two surveys - one of 26 higher education institutions and one of 2,654 students - the report shows that 65 per cent of students questioned had to fund themselves through their courses and received no help from their employers. That is a higher proportion than had been thought.

This is an important finding. The Department for Education and Skills has argued that part-timers don't need the same financial help as full-timers because they are being helped by their employers. That argument will be harder to make in future.

Professor Katherine Leni Oglesby, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Teesside and the secretary of the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning, says that most of Teesside's part-time students finance themselves. "With subjects such as nursing and allied health, often the employer will be paying the fees through contract arrangements with the university," she says. "Outside that, you get some students being paid in subjects such as management. But the vast majority of our students are paying for themselves."

Professor David Latchman, the master of Birkbeck, University of London, the college for mature students, agrees. "What we are told all the time is: 'Well, all students are supported by their employers when they do part-time courses, so why are you moaning about them needing better support?'" he says. "Where employers are paying, it's very patchy."

Financial support for part-timers has changed recently. Until last year, the government provided little help in the way of grants. Part-time students have always had to pay fees, unlike their full-time colleagues, yet they have not been entitled to loans or grants. Last year, the Government introduced modest changes.

Part-time students are now entitled to grants if they are studying for more than half a full-time course, if they do not have a degree and if their household income is less than £15,344. Once their income is more than that, they begin to lose grant money. At £23,145, they lose the grant altogether.

According to the experts, these thresholds are set too low. Students such as Shippey, it is argued, fall into a poverty trap because they earn just more than £15,344. "The Government says it wants to encourage flexible employment and social mobility and is very keen on employer-led education," says Professor Oglesby. "Yet Andrew Shippey is in danger of being penalised because he has used higher education to move out of a very lowly paid job into a better one. He isn't earning a fortune. While he may not be classified as 'poor', he is 'nearly poor'."

Today's report reveals that more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of students in the survey were ineligible for a course or fee grant either because they were studying for less than 50 per cent of a full-time course, or because they already had a degree or their household income was too high.

Professor Bill Jones, of NIACE (the National Institution of Adult Continuing Education), argues that the Government should change the thresholds so that people who are studying for more than 30 per cent of a full-time course who already have degrees should be entitled to grants because they are often struggling, having downshifted jobs to give themselves more time for study. "They are bettering themselves, preparing themselves for another job," he says. CMU (Campaigning for Mainstream Universities) says that the Government should lift the earnings threshold to enable part-time undergraduates to earn more.

The other big issue is fees. Few institutions have increased their fees for part-timers to bring them into line with the new £3,000-a-year top-up fee regime in England, as the Government has been urging them to. That is because they feared that this would deter students. The surveys in the report suggest that they were right. The students who were questioned said that the optimum tuition fee for a part-time course was £600 a year, which equates to £1,200 for a full-time equivalent. Above that, the price would become too expensive.

"This reinforces scepticism in the sector as to whether part-time fees can be raised to this level without a significant drop in numbers," says the report.

The problem for universities that take large numbers of part-timers is that they are losing out from the extra income that top-up fees bring in. To try to get more money into the system and encourage students who might be deterred by the current financial arrangements, GuildHE, the body that represents small, specialist institutions, has suggested to Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, that the Government should consider tax breaks for part-timers.

It has also mooted the idea of employers paying a training levy to the government. Such ideas, especially the latter, may not be seen as politically popular today, but they show how much effort is going into finding solutions.

"This issue is moving up the agenda," says Professor Jones. "We're moving towards a world where higher education is part-time de facto. The full-time students are shelf-stacking in Asda, and the Asda shelf-stackers are your part-time students. Why not get rid of the definitions part-time and full-time, and set all fees and grants pro rata?"

This would be complicated and expensive. More to the point, today's report shows that there is no demand from part-time student for deferred fees, an option that is offered to full-time students. But reform is certainly needed to meet Gordon Brown's objective of ensuring that people are able to get their skills updated in the interests of a globally competitive economy.

More to the point, people are studying part-time because they can't afford to be full-time and/or they need the flexibility, says Diana Green, vice chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University and chairman of the steering group that oversaw the study. "They are using higher education for positive, career-enhancing reasons. We should respond by helping them."

'Part-time students in higher education - supporting higher- level skills and lifelong learning', Universities UK, Woburn House, 20 Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9HQ

UK facts

* There are 840,000 part-time students in UK higher education (40 per cent of the total).

* More than 20 per cent study at the Open University, the biggest part-time institution.

* More than 60 per cent are female. Fifty per cent are aged 30 to 50, but 10 per cent are under 21.

* Only 21 per cent have an A-level. Sixty-five per cent fund their studies themselves.

* The one-third who get help from their employers are more likely to be men, to be full-time employees, and to come from the wealthiest households. So, those who get the most help from their employers are those who least need it.

* An estimated 77 per cent of students were not eligible for a course or fee grant because they were studying for less than 50 per cent of a full-time course, or already had a degree or had too high a household income.