The slump in the number of people attending university part-time is a cause for serious concern, according to senior figures in UK higher education, as it cuts off second chances for talented people to earn a degree.
Official figures published on Thursday showed the number of students taking undergraduate degrees on a part-time basis fell by a further 6% in 2014-15, continuing a steep decline in participation seen since tuition fees nearly tripled in 2012.
The latest fall follows several years of sharp decline – including a 22% fall in 2012-13 when full-time annual fees rose from £3,600 to £9,000-a-year, and another 7% fall in 2013-14.
As a result just 570,000 people are now studying part-time at British universities – including first degrees, diplomas and postgraduate courses – compared with 824,000 in 2010-11, before the hike in fees took effect.
“The decline in part-time student numbers remains a serious cause for concern,” said Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and president ofUniversities UK, which represents the sector.
“The opportunity to study on a part-time basis is vitally important, both for individuals and for the country.”
At higher education establishments in England alone, the equivalent number of part-time students has fallen from 350,000 in 2010-11 to 203,000 in 2014-15.
Sorana Vieru, the NUS vice-president for higher education, said the government was failing to acknowledge this dramatic decline. “Since tuition fees tripled, part-time student numbers have been going down,” she said.
The decline could continue for several years, with the biggest falls seen in the numbers studying for foundation degrees – introductory courses that enabled students without qualifications to take undergraduate courses – where part-time numbers have collapsed by nearly 50%, from 39,200 in 2011 to 19,800 last year.
Les Ebdon, head of the Office for Fair Access, a watchdog overseeing student admissions, said universities needed to take urgent action to arrest the decline in part-time numbers.
“This is part of a deeply worrying trend which has seen drastic year-on-year reductions in people choosing to study part-time,” Ebdon said.
“If sustained action is not taken now, it may be too late to reverse the trend. This will mean many talented people who missed out on the traditional route into full-time study aged 18 find their route to a second chance at study cut off.”
But the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – which oversees higher education – said it had adopted new policies to encourage part-time students, including eligibility for maintenance loans from 2018-19, and allowing previous graduates to get tuition fee loans to study science, engineering or maths.
“The reasons for the decline in part-time students is complex but we want to ensure finance will not be a barrier for anybody with the potential to benefit from higher education,” a BIS spokesperson said.
Ebdon said the government’s moves were positive, but that it should consider “providing student loans in bite-sized chunks” so that students could study for individual modules rather than immediately committing to full degrees.
The statistics also showed an unusual fall in the total number of degrees awarded last year, thanks to the dip in undergraduate numbers seen in 2012 after the fee rise.
The proportion of undergraduates receiving firsts or 2:1s continued to rise, from 70% in 2013-14 to 72% in 2014-15.
The figures, from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, also showed the number of new overseas students fell a further 3% last year, with those arriving from the US outstripping the number from India for the first time.
“We could be doing better than this,” Goodfellow said. “It is essential that the UK government presents a welcoming climate for genuine international students and academics.”