The decline in adult participation in part-time education is a worrying consequence of changes in HE policy since the coalition government came to power. Since 2010-11, part-time undergraduate entrants have fallen by 40% and part time post graduates by 27%. NIACE, Birkbeck, The Open University and the WEA are seeking to raise the profile of this issue with government, emphasising the role which adult education plays in the UK and the ‘false economy’ of making the journey more difficult.
Part-time study has traditionally been a strength of the UK economy and the benefits of part-time study have been well documented. A third of the total student population studies part-time and 61% of them are female. Two thirds have family commitments and 2 in 5 have children. The benefits are experienced by employers with 83% of part-time graduates saying they are better able to do their jobs because of their course.
In the WEA we know of many examples, past and present of students who have taken a WEA course, developed their confidence and skills, and who have then embarked on a university degree, achieving far more than they did whilst in full time education.
Distance learning has increased the range of part-time options that are available and the combination of tutor hours, tutor support, and colleagues and friends with whom to share the learning has meant a rich variety of learning styles and preferences can be accommodated.
Levels of employment stability are particularly high for part-time students with 81% working before, during and after their course. These figures speak for themselves.
What can we do to counter the decline in part-time students? The first thing to say is that we need to identify the cause of the decline. If education has the power to transform lives and livelihoods, we need to get that message over. All we hear through the media is about students who are in full-time study, their loans and their debts, and high levels of graduate unemployment. We need to get the good news out about earning while you learn thus escaping from the low wage, low productivity trap in which too many of our citizens are caught.
Staying in employment means learning new skills. All of us can benefit from access to educational resources, whether through a university degree, or through vocational studies or through improving our numeracy, literacy or critical thinking abilities. These are vitally needed in our society. We are therefore campaigning with others on reversing the decline in adult student numbers through;
· Better information, advice and guidance (IAG) and communication to potential part-time students.
· Reinstatement of the part-time premium.
· A review of Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) policy.
· Sharing the stories of success so that other part-time students are inspired.
· Using the events and celebrations of Adult Learners Week to get our message out into communities and into the media – profiling the very big difference that access to part-time education can make.
· Recruiting new ambassadors to our cause.
· Developing links with the National Careers Service.
· Developing links with the Women’s Business Council.
We also need to communicate the fact that part-time undergraduates can apply for an up-front loan, which could help reverse the decline in participation. However at the moment too few are taking advantage of the loans, and we need to do more to make loans attractive for part-time study.
We also need to encourage a love of learning and develop a learning culture for adults. Many of our WEA learners are hungry for challenges and opportunities. This is why some who were students are now tutors and many of our alumni become volunteers. Learning is not a problem to overcome but ignorance is and will impede economic recovery and growth. Finding cost effective ways to get adults back into learning should be a top priority for the coalition government and for the UK. Adult part-timers have been the biggest casualty of the 2012 changes and we cannot allow that to continue.