Since 2008-09, the part-time student body has fallen from a peak of 388,000 students to number only 208,000 in 2014-15. Early returns from institutions suggest the decline continued in 2015-16 and overall numbers are expected to fall by a further 5 per cent compared to 2014-15.
The Great Recession, which began in 2008, probably played a part: difficulty finding employment may have led some students to study full time, rather than studying part time alongside a job. That could be reflected in the rising full-time student numbers during the recession. Policy changes have also contributed: in 2008-09, Government funding was reduced for students studying towards a qualification at an equivalent, or lower, level to one they already hold. That contributed to a 27 per cent increase in part-time fees between 2007-08 and 2010-11. In 2012-13, the lifting of the fee cap led to further fee increases. These were offset to some extent by the extension of the loan system to part-time study; however, many students were ineligible for the loans.
The changing profile of the part-time student body provides some insight into these changes in enrolments. Notably, three subjects account for almost half the fall. By far the biggest contributor is ‘combined studies’, which has seen an 85 per cent reduction in entrants since 2008-09 and accounts for over a third of the total fall in part-time numbers. Students of combined studies have a distinctive profile: in 2008-09, 85 per cent were studying towards a certificate or diploma, 64 per cent were distance learners and 77 per cent were mature students. That profile suggests many of them may have been adult students who study for personal enrichment and self-improvement in their leisure time. They tend to choose modules for personal, rather than professional, reasons.
Enrichment learners are likely to be particularly sensitive to increases in fees. Mature students tend to have greater financial and time commitments, both of which make them more likely to break off their studies in response to fee increases. In addition, people who are studying primarily for enjoyment are not necessarily expecting a wage return on their study. That, again, makes them less likely to continue their studies when the cost rises.
Some enrichment learners may have switched to courses that do not lead to a qualification rather than withdrawing from study entirely: these courses tend to be cheaper than the credit-bearing courses. Between 2008-2012, there was a 33 per cent increase in English HEIs’ income from non-credit-bearing courses, which may have been partly caused by enrichment learners switching across.
The next two largest falls in part-time numbers have been among nurses and educators. In 2010, the Nursing & Midwifery Council published new standards requiring prospective nurses to gain a nursing degree, which caused part-time enrolments in sub-degree qualifications to collapse. However, the fall in part-time nursing enrolments has been almost wholly offset by increases in full-time, first degree enrolments. Part-time enrolments in postgraduate nursing qualifications have also risen in response to the change in requirements.
Similarly, from 2012-13, the Government encouraged a move towards teacher training in schools, through routes such as SCITT and School Direct. That led to a decline in traditional, post-graduate routes into teaching and a fall in part-time, postgraduate teacher training in HEIs. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the number of students entering taught, postgraduate teacher training fell by about 10,000, while teacher training through School Direct alone expanded by over 15,000 places.
However, this shift cannot cannot explain the halving of students in ‘education studies’, which deals with research into education. The magnitude and rapidity of the fall suggests that there may be some reclassification occurring, which could be exaggerating the effect. More investigation would be required to determine the reasons for the fall in enrolments.
Up to half the fall in part-time study can be explained by switching into other forms of study, or discouraged enrichment learners. However, the available evidence is only circumstantial and it is impossible to discern the motivations or destinations of those who have been discouraged from higher education entirely. That is a particular concern when the hollowing out of the labour market may lead to some skills becoming rapidly obsolete. If adults are choosing not to retrain in the face of falling relative wages, that could lead to long-term, structural unemployment in vulnerable sectors.
To encourage post-secondary training and lift productivity, the Government has recently created new routes through higher education by introducing Higher-Level and Degree Apprenticeships but these are not yet visible in the data. The 2015 Green Paper also emphasises the role of private providers in the market for higher education and some part-time students may have switched to privately provided courses when they were no longer able to obtain student loans.
These gaps in our understanding highlight the need for further research. HEFCE is actively working to develop a better understanding of students’ transitions through higher education and the effect on their life outcomes. As that work progresses, it will be possible to gain a more accurate picture of the impact that shifts in enrolments and provision might have.