The drop in part-time and mature students is a “scandal” as the Government is urged to improve the support available for flexible learning opportunities.
The comments have been made by the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), Sally Hunt, on the day a new report looks at how colleges and universities are promoting access to higher education (HE) for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
According to the report, published by the Office for Fair Access (Offa), the number of part-time learners has dropped by 60 per cent since 2006.
As well as this, the number of mature students has also halved over the same period as almost a third of targets relating to mature students failed to be met by universities in 2014/15.
The targets are a requirement for all institutions charging higher-level tuition fees.
Mrs Hunt described this finding as “very disappointing,” and said: “Clearly there are still serious issues to be addressed and, if social mobility targets are to be met by 2020, the Government urgently needs to make a stronger push on access.”
This, she added, should include a national inquiry on access and admissions reform which “addresses persistent barriers” to higher education.
Mrs Hunt said the missed targets on mature students are “particularly worrying.” She continued: “The rapid decline in part-time and mature learners is a scandal and points to a failure of the student finance system to meet different needs.
“[The] Government must do more to support flexible learning opportunities which are so vital for people with family and caring responsibilities, or who want to study alongside their job.”
However, looking at the report’s findings on the whole, Professor Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education at Offa, said more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in HE “than ever before,” with 2014/15 seeing “further excellent progress.”
Though, he has acknowledged now is the time to “press for further progress.” He added: “Too many people are still held back by their backgrounds, despite having the ability to excel in HE. I will continue to challenge universities and colleges to set and meet more stretching targets.
“Figures from Ucas show that meeting the Prime Minister’s goal to double the rate of disadvantaged students from 2009 to 2020 will require a significant acceleration in progress.
“My latest access agreement guidance to institutions makes clear I expect them to redouble their efforts to ensure people from disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t left behind.”
Echoing Mrs Hunt’s comments, Professor Ebdon said the report shows “starkly that there is still much work to be done.”
He added: “In order to strengthen the economy and ensure HE truly is open to everyone with the talent to benefit, urgent action must be taken to reverse the long-term decline in part-time and mature students.”
Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “While we are seeing record application rates from disadvantaged backgrounds, too many are still missing out.
“That is why our recent university access guidance for the first time called for specific support for white boys from the poorest homes, and it’s why we will press ahead with our important reforms to HE, including plans to require universities to publish admissions data, so that we can shine a spotlight on where action must be taken.”
Offa’s report has come shortly after the Open University’s vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, said current widening participation efforts fail to take into account the vital role part-time and lifelong study has to play in driving social mobility.
He said: “If ministers are serious about encouraging these groups of our society into studying at a higher level, they cannot afford to focus their efforts solely on 18-year-olds, as has previously been the case.”
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