Stephen McNair: Part-time students - endangered species

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The Independent Online

The public debate about the Higher Education Bill has been conducted as if "student" always meant a young person aged 19 to 23, living away from home and studying full time.

The public debate about the Higher Education Bill has been conducted as if "student" always meant a young person aged 19 to 23, living away from home and studying full time. But this is wrong. More than 40 per cent of all students study part time and most are mature. They have never had free higher education or loans, and if the Government is not careful, the Bill going through the House of Lords will drive them out of the system altogether.

When the Bill was in committee in the Lords, Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, made three striking admissions: no government in recent years has seriously considered the policy on part-timers, the comparative costs of teaching full- and part-time students are not known, and "we have not paid sufficient attention to adult learners". The proposed fee review by the Higher Education Funding Council would be asked to look specifically at part-timers, he said, and he envisaged "means of support for all part-time students". When the debate moved back to the Lords last month, the issue came to the fore and, late in the day, there have been discussions about possible amendments to the Bill.

The distinction between part- and full-time students is increasingly artificial. Many countries do not distinguish the two, and in English universities you will often find part- and full-time students in the same classroom. Furthermore, there are no longer many full-time students in the old sense. Most full-time undergraduates now work long hours during term time, leaving them with less time for study than some of their "part-time" peers.

Is part-time study a good thing? Part-timers pay their own way, earning as they go. For many, working gives their studies a context and a relevance that is lacking for many full-timers: they are motivated to learn by a clearer sense of why they are studying, and what they will do with the results. For "non-traditional" students, who come through routes other than A-levels and are often debt-averse, part-time study may be more attractive. Moreover, part-timers may be easier to recruit than full-timers, which is good for the Government's participation target.

Ministers have recognised the case for expanding, or at least maintaining, part-time higher education, but this is not what the Bill will achieve. Unlike their full-time peers, part-timers will not be able to defer fee payment through the loan system. They will have to pay upfront or go away. If universities raise their part-time fees in line with full-time ones, this will mean a trebling of fees, to a typical £1,500 a year for six years, almost certainly pricing most students out of the market. A university could choose to keep its part-time fees lower, but the funding council sets a maximum number of students for each university. This means that universities have to choose whether to use their limited student numbers on full- or part-timers. If two half-timers bring in £1,000, and one full-timer produces £3,000, there will be a strong financial incentive for universities to switch to full-timers. Teaching 20 full-timers rather than 40 half-timers would produce enough extra money to save a lecturer's job.

Ministers have asked the Higher Education Funding Council to carry out a review of teaching funding and to pay particular attention to part-timers. The review will report in a year and take effect in three. By that time, it is possible that many universities will have moved out of part-time teaching altogether, and that those part-time students remaining will be concentrated in institutions that cannot fill their full-time places, and are seriously less well-funded than their peers. We risk a second-rate education for part-timers.

For a price, Government could put this right, by extending loans to part-timers on a pro-rata basis. But what we really need is a fundamental review of university funding - and the support of students - that is not dependent on an arbitrary full/ part-time division. But with the Bill currently going through the House of Lords, time is getting very short.

The writer is professor of education, and co-director of the Centre for Policy and Change at the University of Surrey