The shrinking (part-time) student

“Part-time students, particularly mature undergraduates, seem to be an invisible and, in national policy terms, poorly understood cohort. ”  This is Professor Sir Eric Thomas, introducing a recent UUK report on part-time HE.  The report makes grim reading, for the most part.  Over the past decade or so, whilst full-time undergraduates  have grown considerably (11%), the numbers of part-timers have shrunk, by about 17%.

Much of my professional life has been spent promoting lifelong learning in one form or another, and especially part-time learning within universities, so this makes painful reading.  My last full-time job in the UK was with the country’s oldest provider of such opportunities, Birkbeck, and I’m proud to retain a link with this great institution.    (It continually amazes me how many people I run across have been a Birkbeck student – including just last night at the inspiring Inspiring the Future launch, where I met  a former lawyer who had  recently completed our London Studies course).  I’m glad to say that Birkbeck is surviving strongly, even flourishing, but the overall picture is pretty gloomy.

Two particular PP-relevant points emerge clearly from the UUK report.  First, it confirms that the great majority of part-time students are women – nearly 70%.    They have been harder hit by the decline.  Between 2002/3 and 2011/2, male entrants into PTHE fell by 4%, but female numbers by 14%.   You could argue that  since more women are now going straight into universities, and dominating regular fulltime HE, a decline in their part-time numbers is only to be expected.  But PTHE is an important route for women building careers, and it’s shrivelling.

My second PP point is the one made by Eric Thomas in the quote at the top.  Part-timers are often invisible in HE as they are in the workforce.  They are not ‘core business’, for education or the economy.   Of course part-timers are growing in the workforce, unlike in the HE student body, but the general attitude is the same.  There is something very curious about this blindness, which I can only attribute to the fact that our models of work and learning are still based on traditional male patterns .  They are becoming less and less sustainable.

That said there are some gleams of light from the report.  In the first place, it’s encouraging that the UUK has undertaken this work, and sees it as an ongoing responsibility.  The report makes a strong link to the economy and to business concerns.  It demonstrates that part-time higher education is a seriously important route for people in work to raise their levels of competence, across a whole range of sectors, so there should be some heavyweight support from that quarter.   It has some very practical proposals for raising the profile of PTHE: better communications  on what is on offer and on financial support would help to revere the decline.  I hope – and believe – that the decline is a temporary one.

And finally, a further, different gleam of light from the Inspire the Future event I mentioned above.  It was the launch of a campaign to help girls and young women get a better match between their aspirations and competences and the jobs of the future.  The appeal from Miriam Gonzalez Durantez was very simple:  for people to give up one hour a year to go and talk about their careers, so that all young women have a broader exposure to options.  They are looking for male as well as female volunteers.


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