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Unheard: The voices of part-time adult learners reveals the sharp decline in part-time learning

Why we must listen to the voices of part-time students

A new paper published today (6 Feb) from the Higher Education Policy Institute, Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners (HEPI Report 124) by Dr John Butcher of the Open University, considers the sharp decline in part-time learning through the voices of students.

Between 2011/12 and 2017/18, there was a 60% fall in the number of people from England starting a part-time undergraduate course within the UK. This contributed towards an overall 21% drop in the number of people from England starting undergraduate study and a 16% decline in the number of new undergraduate students from England from low participation areas.

The voices of part-time learners captured in the report reveal three areas of particular concern to part-time learners:

  1. Prior obstacles to learning: I’m in my 50s, with a family … I left high school and just went to work … but there was this thing in the back of my mind I could have done more … if I could turn the clock back I would consider going full-time. 
  2. Costs: Paying rent or a mortgage impacts on people’s ability and their decision to invest in part-time education … in my late 30s, is it something that is going to have been worth the time, and the financial investment … it’s people like us who have taken the impact of the fees.
  3. The inflexibility of institutions: A part-time student is not considered as a demographic in their own right … you are just shoe-horned in, lumped with the full-timers … I’m basically too old … it would be useful to categorise part-time students a little bit further.

The stories captured in the new report also reveal the personal feelings of part-time learners after enrolment:

  1. Anxiety: I’d been at home since I had children … just to come outside was a big thing, but then to come into a university and then to be with academics, listening to lectures and seminars … caused me quite a lot of internal anxiety.
  2. Challenge: I’ve been a stay-at-home mother for 22 years … it’s so long since I’ve studied I wanted to make sure I still could … I found it hard to even focus for more than about half an hour … wanted to test myself out.
  3. Opportunity: I signed up and it reinvigorated the love of learning that I hadn’t had for about ten years. It built on things I may have missed at school … I really want to get back on track with my life really.

The author of the paper, Dr John Butcher, who has responsibility for access at the Open University, said:

The collapse in part-time learning means individuals lose out and universities are less interesting places. Official policies like the National Student Survey and widening participation initiatives are part of the problem because they tend to play down or even ignore part-time learners.

Part-time students are disproportionately likely to come from parts of society traditionally under-represented in higher education. Ministerial statements about there being a record numbers of students ignore part-time learners. When they are included, a big drop in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is revealed.

A new approach is overdue, especially in England which lags behind other parts of the UK in protecting part-time education. Otherwise, part-time students will continue to be peripheral, feeling like tourists passing through higher education but knowing they do not really belong.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

Recent reforms to higher education are meant to have introduced a student-centred system. But people who want, or need, to study part-time have less choice than they did. The removal of some public funding in 2008, the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 and the withdrawal of some courses have had a terrible combined impact.

We are good at producing data in higher education but we are sometimes less good at listening to the voices of learners, which can teach us so much. Boosting part-time study would help fill skills shortages and help the life chances of individuals. If we change direction, we can have a clear win:win.

 Commenting on the publication of this paper, Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), said:

“This report highlights the need for policies which take into account not just the structure of part-time learning, but the lives of part-time students themselves. These students can often be left behind by universities, and the decline in part-time numbers since tuition fees were raised is frankly shocking.

“The only way to address this and to improve conditions for part-time students is through a National Education Service which is funded, accessible and lifelong.”

The paper ends with a series of policy recommendations aimed at making policy more part-time aware.

Dr John Butcher has strategic responsibility for the Access and Open programmes at the Open University. He previously held senior roles at the University of Derby, the University of Northampton and University College Falmouth. He is the Managing Editor of the journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning.

HEPI’s previous work on part-time students includes It’s the finance, stupid! The decline of part-time higher education and what to do about it (2015), edited by Nick Hillman.

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