03 Jul 2015

Research calls for renewed focus on the diverse needs of part-time students

Student studying

Student studying

Research published today into the experiences of part-time students shows that they are a highly diverse cohort, and that their wide range of circumstances and responsibilities may impact on their successful participation in higher education.

The research, conducted by John Butcher from The Open University and funded by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) is set against changes to fee structures and the backdrop of declining numbers in part-time study: latest data show that the part-time share of the UK HE market has dropped from 36% (2007/8) to 28% (2012/13). The vast majority of the reduction in part-time undergraduate students is in English institutions.

Setting out to explore the experiences of part-time students across the UK who are studying (rather than the reasons for declining numbers) the research found that part-time HE attracts a higher proportion of female students, and that many carried caring responsibilities for children (38%), or older relatives (12%). A significant proportion of respondents reported being the first in their families to study HE and most had been out of education for five to ten years. This analysis, say the authors, may help the sector to focus on how best to support part-time students and enhance provision.

The research also shows that barriers to part-time study were cited as financial by many respondents, with the cost of courses presenting a challenge to individuals who reported using their own savings, borrowing from family, or credit card debt to fund their studies.
In terms of motivation, when asked why they were studying at all, the commonest response from part-time students in the study was to improve employment prospects. The second most cited reason was that students who felt they had missed out at 18, and were pursuing the opportunity of a second chance.

Professor Stephanie Marshall, Chief Executive, HEA, said:
“It is vital to understand the needs of all students so that we in the sector can help them to succeed and to fulfil their potential. Importantly, this research highlights the student voice: the researchers talked to part-time students themselves as well as conducting desk research, learning first-hand about the challenges and opportunities of studying part-time, and exploring with them their motivations for choosing to study. In this way, they have gained a fully-rounded and highly valuable picture which I hope will help to inform policy debate and to enhance our understanding.

“Flexibility is cited in the study as a core focus. We must be conscious of the heterogeneity of part-time students and address individual needs accordingly – whether that is in the mode, place or pace of study and to embed these in strategies for learning and teaching. The diversity of part-time students brings great value to institutions: we should celebrate that as well as acknowledge their needs.”

Vice-Chancellor of The Open University, Peter Horrocks, said:
“This research clearly shows the breadth and the quality of part-time students. It also recognises that many are coming to part-time study because they are put off by the high cost of full-time education, or because they have other commitments such as family or career.

“This is why we are urging policy-makers to value part-time study as a critical part of the UK economy and a cost-effective driver of social mobility. The challenge is to help break down the barriers identified in this report and keep part-time students front of mind.”

Other key findings:

- Some respondents reported that “it was either part-time or nothing” in terms of choosing a mode of study. Most respondents admitted to preferring the idea of full-time study, but believed the cost was too great; they could not afford to give up a job when they had extensive family outgoings, and in many cases they were debt-averse.
- Coping with mental health problems, being on medication, managing hospital appointments, being housebound or facing deteriorating mobility issues were all reported. “This went some way to confirming a conclusion drawn from qualitative responses to a Welsh pilot study by the authors that for students in such circumstances, part-time higher education is a ‘lifeline’,” says the research.
- In Wales, part-time numbers have dropped over the five year period, but by less (a 24% drop) than in England. In Scotland, the decrease was 7% between 2012/13 and 2013/14, but concentrated mainly in the College sector. In Northern Ireland, numbers involved in part-time higher education have always been small, but a 5% decrease has been recorded from 2012/13 to 2013/14.
- Among the recommendations, the report suggests that “institutions need to be far more aware of the flexibilities that part-time students need, and to adopt a customer focus to ensure engagement with learners who currently feel isolated and disengaged from a student community.”

Notes to editors
1. ‘Shoe-horned and side-lined?’: Challenges for part-time learners in the new HE landscape” used the following methodology: in order to explore the part-time student experience in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the first stage of this research consisted of a 25 question online survey, based on an original survey used by the authors in Wales. This was issued to a sample of part-time students in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland between July and October 2014.

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