Finding a way forward to solving the problem of low participation of part-time mature students in higher education was the subject of the Annual UALL Seminar which recently took place at the Ambassadors Hotel in London.
The current crisis in part-time higher education is continuing to have a negative impact on engagement of mature students in higher education, who are put off taking programmes because of high fees and loans. Keynote speaker, Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access, spoke of the forgotten challenges of access and part-time study for mature students. He argues that while it is known that mature students have potentially the capacity to drive the economy forward, many of them require new skills and training. However, when we look at the numbers involved in education we find that the numbers of mature students entering higher education has fallen dramatically.
Financial pressures on both students and on employers who might fund part-time students and a lack of high quality information, advice and guidance is said to be among the key reasons for low uptake and drop out. Ebdon spoke of high levels of concern about financing (69%) and evidence of individuals suffering financial hardship (64%), with 49% receiving financial support from institutions with up to 34% of students considering suspending their study due to financial pressures. (Never too late to learn: mature students in HE).
Posing the question ‘ how we can reverse the trends in low participation’, Les Ebdon suggests the Government should consider new measures which might include allowing fee loans , relaxing ELQ restrictions to ensure eligibility for financial support for those wanting to take ‘short units of learning’ as well as those already holding higher education qualifications and who want to train in another field of study and providing tax incentives for employers and policy to support the upskilling of the workforce and ensuring that the government leads by example. He noted that some universities were providing their own financial support for part-time students and also emphasised that universities needed to ensure that students not only took up opportunities in higher education, but were also successful.
Claire Callender, Birkbeck College, University of London and UCL Institute of Education, also spoke the demise of part-time higher education in England. Universities have no longer most of the money they got from government for teaching full and part-time under graduate courses which has been cut by 80% and this has led to higher tuition fees. Course grants for part-time students have been abolished and for the first time, some part-time students now qualify for income-contingent loans. This, she argues, opens up access to higher education and remedies a long standing injustice towards adult students.
Claire also spoke about the characteristics of adult learners in higher education. She noted that the majority of part time students in higher education (75%) were over 25 years of age with 61% being women. Some 53% already had some experience of HE with 54% having a sub degree qualification already therefore more than half of the part-time students were not students who fall into the widening participation category. They have no HE qualification already at the time entering. She noted a 90% fall had taken place at sub degree and credit level.
Unprecedented cuts in public expenditure, which included cuts to tuition fee and course grants for part-time students, were measures which were said to be contributing to lower uptake. Between 2010 and 2011 there has been a drop of 55 % in the number of part-time undergraduates in England, with 19% taking out a loan in 2013/14. However, the majority of part-timers do not qualify for loans, but are faced with higher fees which have to paid out of pocket, Her conclusion is that high fees make part-time study unaffordable or too risky an investment.
She argued that policies need to take account of the distinctive characteristics of part-time students and to improve the eligibility for loans. However, lower financial returns for part-time study may justify greater government subsidies to support demand.
The event also emphasised the need to tackle the barriers which mature students entering higher education currently face and to finding new approaches to increasing participation. The question of whether there is the political will to meet the challenges posed by part-time study was also raised.