The declining numbers of adult and part-time students

The declining numbers of adult and part time students is a stark reminder of the economic facts of life in many of our communities. 

In June 2011, the government produced a white paper entitled “Higher Education:  students at the heart of the system” which extended eligibility for tuition fee loans to part time students for the first time.  They thought this would enable part-timers to enjoy the same access to higher education as full timers. 

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has just issued a report which shows an overall drop in part-time undergraduate students of 40 per cent since 2010.

Despite the many benefits which adult learners derive from further and higher education, large swathes of older learners are no longer making it through the university door.  The reasons are more complicated than changes in the fees regime and student loans. However, the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL ) says it does boil down to economics in that the cost of part-time study hits disadvantaged groups more than others. 

Part-time higher education is now unaffordable for many who have other economic constraints such as supporting a family, paying the mortgage and declining household incomes. And for those in work, many are getting less support from their employers.

Professor Michael Gunn, Vice – Chancellor of Staffordshire University says: “For part-time students, employer support has often been the key …and there is some evidence that this is not as readily available in the current climate”

Clair Callender of the Institute of Education agrees:  “People are feeling it is too much of a financial risk.  There is no guarantee of a higher income after re-training”. 

The NUS, which held a conference on championing mature students last week, claims that many universities aren’t thinking hard enough about the needs of workers.

Our experience at the WEA shows us that it is difficult to provide support for learners at all stages of their journey – and to overcome barriers to learning.  Universities are often seen as the preserve of the young, despite the fact that the WEA was very much the pioneer of educational aspiration for everyone.

It is also the case that the UK economy is beleaguered at present by too many workers who are in a low skill, low pay trap and still dependant on benefits.  As Richard Godwin wrote in the Evening Standard on 3 April: “The largest part of the welfare budget actually goes to pensioners – around 47%.  The next largest portion goes on in-work benefits for low-paid workers. The £29.91 billion spent on tax credits dwarfs the £4.9 billion spent on Job Seeker’s Allowance.  In effect this means taxpayers are subsidising companies to pay their workers less than is required to live – which in turn limits demand in the economy”. 

This is what is known as in-work poverty and will not be addressed even when the economy picks up without better access to skills and learning.

We need to ensure that access is not an issue and that there is affordable and available adult education in all our communities.  This is why the WEA is working with NIACE, The Open University and Birkbeck to establish the facts about declining participation in adult education – and the economic benefits.  We are also working with the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to measure the wider impact of the WEA work, particularly focusing on disadvantaged groups and communities. 

It’s only when we understand the realities of people’s lives, that we can make our own distinctive contribution.

With university lifelong learning in decline, we need to think about what we offer to higher education institutions. 

Universities are increasingly expected to demonstrate the impact of their work in their communities.  Many will see their “widening access” funding as threatened if they fail to demonstrate results in attracting students from all backgrounds.  Some will already be developing proactive links with local bodies engaged with adult learning, while others may be further behind. 

In this context the WEA needs to revive its historic mission to raise aspiration for all and this must include access to higher education.

 It is an economic and social imperative.

Ruth Profile


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