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New figures released on Thursday show that the higher education participation rate rose to 48% in 2014-15. The participation rate is now higher than it was prior to the Coalition Government announcing the trebling of tuition fees. Indeed the participation rate has only been beaten in one year, 2011-12. Most researchers agree the rate was artificially high in that year due to students choosing not to defer their entry to university in order to avoid the new tuition fee regime.

Yet, strong progress in the full-time higher education sector is masking a worrying decline in part-time higher education. The new figures show that just 4% of people participated in part-time higher education last year – the lowest level on record.

On the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister made clear her determination to make social reform the defining part of her premiership. She has already set to work on this by announcing an audit into racial disparities in public sector employment and school reforms.

To date, most of the Prime Minister’s education reforms have focused on young people; new grammar schools, new faith schools, reforms to private schooling and new schools set up by universities. Schools are, undoubtedly, important. How a child fares in the classroom can transform their life chances; for good or for worse. But it is not the full story. Quality education needs to be open to people throughout their lives, especially in a labour market demanding longer and more changeable careers. People need the opportunity to gain new skills when circumstances change or build on their existing skills to progress. In other words, we need to normalise and support lifelong learning.

Part-time higher education is critical for achieving this, since it enables older individuals to learn while working. Indeed, three quarters of part-time undergraduates are aged 25 and over, compared to just 11% of full-time undergraduates.

Sadly, Thursday’s figures were not the first indication of a troubling decline in part-time higher education. Previous figures have shown that between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the number of part-time undergraduate entrants plummeted by 55%. This decline means that fewer adults are being given the opportunity to transform their life chances. The PM should make the reversal of this trend a core part of her ‘social reform’ strategy.

Last year, Bright Blue undertook a research project to identify the different reasons for this decline in part-time higher education. We polled a large representative sample of adults in England who had considered but not undertaken part-time higher education in the past five years. We asked these ‘considerers’ to report the main barriers that they faced. We found that financial barriers – in particular, not being able to afford to pay the tuition fees for these courses – were most frequently reported.

The Government must address financial barriers if they are to reverse the troubling decline in part-time higher education entrants. In recent years, some welcome policies have been introduced. In 2012-13, the Coalition Government introduced tuition fee loans for part-time undergraduates. In last year’s Autumn Statement, the then Chancellor, George Osborne, announced the introduction of maintenance loans for part-time undergraduates.

While these measures are welcome, they are still insufficient. That’s because, currently, only around31% of part-time higher education students are eligible for tuition fee loans. Most part-time higher education students are ineligible because they are studying for a qualification that is at an equivalent or lower level to one which they have already obtained.

It’s time to introduce a lifetime higher education tuition fee loan account for all adults to pay for any higher education qualification – part-time or full-time – throughout their lives. The lifetime loan account would consist of a relatively large amount of money that individuals could continually draw down from throughout their lives. The exact size of the loan account would be determined by government but it should be high enough to enable multiple degrees yet low enough to trigger price competition and, in particular, downward pressure on undergraduate tuition fees in England. Students will repay the amount they have borrowed from their lifetime loan account to the Student Loans Company through the PAYE system. Since, under this model, the number of eligible adults drawing down on student loans will increase, and the amount they are receiving will also increase, it is potentially the case that government expenditure through subsiding student loans will rise. To mitigate this, we propose that the parameters for the repayment of the lifetime higher education tuition fee loan account (for example, the minimum salary threshold for repayment or the interest rate attached to tuition fee loans) should be stricter for every additional qualification an individual obtains. In addition, we believe that the Government should introduce a ‘graduate levy’.

The new graduate levy will charged on large employers of large amounts of graduates. We do not specify the rate of the levy, nor the size of the employer. We believe that the government should consult on this as it did with the ‘apprenticeship levy’. All funds raised from the graduate levy will be used to help subsidise the proposed lifetime higher education tuition fee loan account. This will help ensure that the loan account is not burdensome on public finances. The graduate levy would ensure that all large graduate employers contribute to the cost of a system which they are major beneficiaries of.

Securing the Conservative priority of ‘equality of opportunity’ doesn’t just mean having excellent support services at the start of people’s lives, but throughout. The PM needs to keep the ladders in place.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue