Part-timers no longer the poor relation

Until now, only full-time students received help from the government. Tim Walker looks at what's changed
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In all the hullabaloo surrounding top-up fees, one group of students could be forgiven for feeling rather forgotten - the part-timers at institutions such as Birkbeck College and The Open University (OU), who have always had to pay their fees up-front. The institutions certainly had concerns that they would end up on the losing side of the funding equation when top-up fees were implemented this academic year. And sure enough, top-up fees do not affect part-time students, but the Government has come up with new awards and bursaries to encourage more part-time study.

The part-time student grant to help with tuition fees has risen, for example, by 25 per cent, affecting around 85,000 students. The institutions themselves have had their discretionary funds (to give additional help to part-time students) increased four-fold, allowing more students to have their fees fully funded by a combination of Government and university money. And students on low incomes can apply for an extra course grant of £250 a year, which helps to alleviate extra study costs like books and travel.

To apply for fee grants and course grants as a part-time student, your course must last at least one year and be no more than twice the length of the equivalent full-time course. Students must apply at the beginning of each year of the course, and the grants awarded are dependent on income and a number of other factors, not least the intensity of the part-time course.

The package was welcomed, equivocally, by Birkbeck, The OU and the Campaign for Mainstream Universities (CMU), the organisation representing the UK's new universities, all of which are committed to part-time study. The OU is the country's largest part-time higher education institution, due to the popularity of its distance learning programmes. Birkbeck, however, is the UK's leading provider of face-to-face part-time higher education. All undergraduate teaching takes place in the evenings at the university's London campus, allowing students to work full-time alongside their study, thus graduating without the debt that afflicts so many other students.

"I think the DfES has done something by raising the amount of assistance that low-income students can receive with fees," says Professor David Latchman, master of Birkbeck. He is pleased with the new arrangements, but feels there is still more to be done. "We feel the thresholds for extra funding should be higher in London than elsewhere in the country," he says. "And financial provision for part-timers is still considerably worse than for full-time students. Part-timers still have to pay fees up-front, so the income and support packages are more complex.