A report released by the HEPI has demonstrated that the affordability of part-time education within the UK has become near impossible to reach, and urges the government to do more to support the part-time higher education sector.

The report, titled It’s the finance, stupid!, notes how the 2012 reforms that hiked the cost of tuition at a UK universities to £9,000 a year had a significant, detrimental impact on the country’s part-time student population.

“The collapse of part-time study is arguably the single biggest problem facing higher education at the moment,” says Nick Hillman, Director of the HEPI, “There are other challenges too, such as the future of the research environment, how to assess the quality of teaching and dealing with the effects of marketization.

“But it is the fall in part-time learning that is probably the biggest black spot. Even though it began years ago, there has been a shortage of sensible policy proposals to tackle it.”

In 2012, tuition fee loans were extended to part-time students on the same basis as those on full-time courses, for the first time ever. But the reforms meant the introduction of many new exemptions that severely hindered levels of student eligibility.

In order to be eligible for these loans, students have to be:

  •  Aiming for a qualification or lower level than the qualification (ELQ) they already hold- if they already have a Bachelor’s degree, for example, they can not get a loan to pay for a second degree;
  • Studying at an intensity of greater than 25 percent of a full-time equivalent course; and
  • Following a full course for a specified qualification aim- so students studying individual modules are ineligible for loans.

The UK’s 2012/13 reforms introduced a financial cap of £6,750 a year on part-time undergraduate tuition fees, which students can pay back via government-funded income-contingent loans. Under present repayment rules (currently under review), part-time students pay back their loans four years after graduating, provided they earn over £21,000 a year. They then continue to pay 9 percent of their income above £21,000 until they have repaid their loan, with any outstanding debt written-off after 30 years.

A 2011 white paper called Students at the Heart of the System claimed the reforms would make part-time study more accessible and affordable, encouraging more students to consider a part-time route of study, thus stemming its decline. Contrary to what the government hoped, the reforms had the exact opposite effect.

Between 2010/11 and 2014/15, the number of UK and EU part-time undergraduate applicants at UK HEFCE-funded universities declined by 143,000, an overall decrease of more 55 percent. Last year alone the figures dropped by ten percent. As a result of this, by the academic year 2014/14, part-time students consisted of just 23 percent of all undergraduate entrants, compared to 40 percent in 2011/12.

The falls have been greatest among the UK’s mature student population, especially those over the age of 55; those who either have a low-level entry qualification, or otherwise none at all; and those studying less than 25 percent of a full-time course.


Higher Education institutions are no longer recipients of funding for their teaching, and it is this loss of income that was replaced by the rising cost of tuition fees.  In 2012/13, the median tuition fee charged for a part-time Bachelor’s degree was £5,000. Although comparable data prior to 2012/13 is not available, tuition fees in 2012/13 were double, sometimes even triple, figures from previous years.

Anthony Adeloye, Co-Founder of Gradelancer, an online service that connects students with reputable employers and job opportunities, notes how the report sheds light on an increasingly pressing issue for higher education in the UK. He says: “Today’s HEPI report highlights the unprecedented pressures facing part-time students.

“Not only have part-time fee levels tripled for them since 2012, but these students are also not eligible for maintenance grants due to the nature of their study. This lack of financial support means that affording part-time education is becoming next to impossible for the majority of students who wish to pursue this route.”

Many blamed the 2008 recession for the lack of part-time student numbers; rising unemployment and a plunge in disposable income severely influenced the number of applications- but the fact that numbers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not displayed a similar fall highlights the severity of impact brought on by the policy and funding changes that have occurred over the past five years.

The majority of potential part-time students are not willing to take out a loan to fund something with such an uncertain return. Students opting for this route tend to have far greater responsibilities- such as children and mortgage repayments- that have to take priority over spending.

Adeloye continues, “Undertaking a part-time course, while also holding down a day job, is no mean feat. Such students tend to be the most disciplined and motivated of all, as they are singularly focused on improving their skills and employability.”

For most of these people, a higher fee, or an additional 9 percent marginal tax to repay on their loan, amounts to a cost that is far too high. Macroeconomic conditions have a far greater impact on part-time than full-time study, as part-time is more sensitive to cost. These aspects all contribute to making the part-time degree more unaffordable and inaccessible than ever before.

Many professionals within the UK’s higher education sector are concerned about the impact that the lack of part-time students will have on the economy. Adeloye says: “With numbers plummeting, this means that it is much harder to boost productivity without retaining or improving skills. Given that Britain is currently facing record low levels of productivity, making life easier for part-time students should be a priority- as supporting them will act as an economic pressure valve.

“We call on the government to provide much more financial and resourcing support to part-time students- to ignore them is quite short-sighted and unfair. The funds needed to assist them now will reap immense benefits in the future for the British economy by creating a [highly] skilled workforce.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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