We need a solution to fund part-time students

The Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance has just started taking evidence. Its findings will reshape the financial context of higher education over the coming decade

As the country's two leading part-time providers of higher education, The Open University and Birkbeck are coming together to inform the review about a significant part of the student body that has been overlooked in earlier higher education policy debates. Despite making up almost 40 per cent of all undergraduates, part-time students do not receive the tuition fee loans and grants available to full- time students.

This disparity in funding between the two sectors runs counter to three key national policy objectives: creating flexibility in education; raising skill levels; and bringing more people from non-traditional backgrounds into universities. The Higher Education Act of 2004 created a two-tier system in which institutions are able to charge higher fees and generate greater income from full-time students, generating incentives to grow full-time provision at the expense of part-time.

The joint Birkbeck/Open University submission highlights the undervalued contribution of part-time students. Most of them are in employment and, therefore, contributing to the economy. Crucially, part-time study meets the Government's concern to reskill and upskill the workforce.

Our flexibility in delivering higher education in a variety of modes makes us highly distinctive. We can educate a broad range of people, many of whom have come to learning later in life. The Open University and Birkbeck have more than 200 years of combined experience, offering teaching to nearly 250,000 students a year. We are making a strong case to the review panel for the fair and equitable financial treatment of all part-time students.

The economy is in crisis. Students are seeking ever more diverse means of gaining a university education. The part-time sector offers the most cost-effective means of delivering the flexible learning that is now so urgently required. We must seize this opportunity to broker a new settlement for the funding of part-time students, because they have such an important place in the community and in the workforce.

Martin Bean is vice-chancellor of The Open University and David Latchman is master of Birkbeck, University of London

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