Education & Family

Warning on loss of part-time students

Peter Horrocks
Image caption Peter Horrocks warns of the threat to part-time education

The fall in part-time students in the UK means lost opportunities for individuals and the economy, the new head of the Open University warns.

Peter Horrocks is calling for part-time higher education to be made a much higher priority.

There has been a 37% decline in UK part-time students in the past five years, Mr Horrocks says.

The OU head says he wants universities, employers and the government to "break down barriers" for part-time study.

Mr Horrocks, who was formerly the director of the BBC World Service, is using his inaugural speech as vice-chancellor to highlight worries about the sharp fall in part-time students.

When tuition fees were increased in England's universities, applications fell across the higher education sector.

But while applications for full-time undergraduate courses bounced back, applications for part-time courses and from mature students have not recovered.

Image caption Full-time student applications recovered, overshadowing the decline in part-time

"Last year, there were almost 370,000 people studying for an undergraduate degree on a part-time basis in the UK. Five years ago, there were more than 580,000. That's a decline of 37% in just five years and 200,000 life opportunities that have been lost," Mr Horrocks will say.

"I think each of those lost opportunities is a tragedy. A tragedy for those individual lives. A tragedy for their families. But also a tragedy for our wider society and economy."

Speaking on the 46th anniversary of the Open University receiving its royal charter, Mr Horrocks will warn of the loss of potential economic benefits from a flexible way of improving people's skills.

"Part-time higher education is just too valuable - to society, to the economy and to those citizens who should have equal access to that opportunity to study," he will say.

Decline overshadowed

And he warns of the need to get more attention paid to part-time education, a type of learning in which the Open University specialises.

There have been warnings that the much greater political attention paid to the numbers of full-time applications has overshadowed the decline in part-time students.

A study last year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England examined why part-time student numbers were falling when applications for full-time courses were rising.

It concluded that rising fees had been a deterrent for part-time students.

Another significant factor had been that firms struggling after the recession were less willing to pay for employees to study part-time courses. And in the public sector, there had also been a squeeze on such study opportunities.

In England, part-time undergraduate student numbers had remained broadly stable between 2002 and 2010, but then began to decline, driven by the fall-out from the recession and rising fees.

It meant that in 2003, 45% of undergraduate entrants were part-time students, but this had fallen to 27% a decade later.

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