My father wasn’t the first in his family to get a degree. My sister and brother had already graduated by the time he finished his part-time BA. He got it more than 40 years after he failed the 11-plus, but it was valuable nonetheless as it enabled him to make a career-changing move.

He is one of many who, having been unable to enter higher education when young, did so later in life and got a degree. However, looking at the data for part-time undergraduate entrants it seems that the pathway he took is becoming less common.

The large decline in part-time undergraduate courses has been well documented. For part-time first (bachelors) degrees the fall has been greatest among those studying at a low intensity and older students.

Numbers of students starting first degrees at more than 50 per cent of full time have in fact been fairly consistent across the sector as a whole since 2007-08. However, the number of entrants to first degrees that are less than half of full time has gone down by 56 per cent since 2010-11.

Those studying at a low intensity tend to be older on average, and the number of older part-time students has also fallen greatly. Since 2010-11, there has been a decline of 39 per cent in entrants aged over 25 to part-time first degrees. By contrast the numbers of those aged 25 and under have fallen by only 16 per cent.

Aside from the tuition fee rises, which (as we’ve noted elsewhere) might be expected to have a greater impact on older students, the declines in mature students and low-intensity study have links to the criteria for eligibility to access student finance. Students at less than 25 per cent of full time are ineligible for tuition fees loans, while older students are more likely to hold a first degree already, and therefore are ineligible as a result of the equivalent and lower qualifications policy.

The increase in the participation rates of 18-year-olds means that the policemen and podiatrists with whom my dad studied for his degree would nowadays be more likely to hold a first degree already.

Some of the impact of the decline is almost certainly mitigated by the fact that completion rates are lower for those studying at lower intensities. This means that the decline in part-time qualifiers from first degrees will be smaller than the decline in entrants.

It is also probable that some of the learning is still taking place, but is not being recorded in national datasets. Many of those taking low-intensity courses may have done so for the learning not the credential, and they could have switched to cheaper, non-credit-bearing courses.

Similarly, while there are fewer part-time undergraduates with financial backing from an employer, there could be more of other kinds of continuing professional development. Revenues from this increased by 5 per cent in the academic year 2014-15.

What role for HE in lifelong learning?

Despite this, the fall in mature part-time students raises questions for the current debate about how the sector will provide lifelong learning opportunities.

Few would argue that the fall in demand is due to workers not needing to learn new skills during their careers. On the contrary, many believe that technological change is increasing the rate at which skills need to be upgraded.

This is recognised in the Industrial Strategy Green Paper, but it is not certain what role higher education providers will play in meeting this demand, or what their offer will be to older workers who want to study at low intensity.

Higher-level and degree apprenticeships may become attractive options for mature students, but it could be that many providers mostly offer courses for the already highly skilled. The number of part-time postgraduates has been increasing and the introduction of postgraduate loans may further increase demand among older graduates. Since postgraduate fees are unregulated, providers have more scope to set fee levels to maximise demand.

A further possibility is that online courses will become recognised credentials. However, demand for these is likely to continue to be strongest among those who already have a degree, and the opportunities for providers could be concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions able to capitalise on their reputation.

The expansion of higher education in the past two decades means that there are more graduates who could be tempted back to higher education via postgraduate or online courses.

But the expansion also means that there are likely to be fewer mid-career, middle-skilled workers who could benefit from studying in higher education for the first time. Since these students tend to be among the least geographically mobile, demand may only exist in small pockets, and it will be become an ever-increasing challenge for providers to offer courses that meet it.

This is the first in a series of blog posts accompanying our latest analysis of higher education in England.