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Increasing the number of graduates is vital for the UK economy. As the recent higher education (HE) green paper demonstrated, the Government believes that, in the years to come, increasing productivity will be the principal driver of economic growth. Improving the skills of workers is an essential part of this. And over 50% of the 14.4 million jobs expected to become vacant between 2012 and 2022 are in occupations which are more likely to employ graduates.

Trends in the HE market are currently sharply divided between the two modes of study – full-time and part-time. The number of full-time UK and other EU HE entrants has reached record highs and continues to rise year-on-year. Record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are now entering full-time HE. This is despite significant increases in the fees charged for full-time undergraduate courses.

The difference in the part-time market could not be more stark. Between 2010-11 and 2013-14, the number of UK and other EU part-time undergraduate entrants declined by 46%. In gross numbers, UK and other EU part-time undergraduate entrants fell from 259,000 to 139,000. The part-time postgraduate market has experienced a smaller but still significant decline. Between 2010–11 and 2013–2014, UK and other EU part-time taught postgraduate entrants fell by 28% from 97,000 to 70,000.

However, it is not all doom and gloom for part-time HE. As part of Bright Blue’s new report, Going part-time, we polled a large representative sample of the English population aged 18 or over. We found that 37% of the English population with no experience of part-time HE have considered undertaking it at some point in the previous five years. In other words, there is significant latent demand for part-time HE – a major pool of potential upskillers and reskillers that we need to support.

These ‘considerers’ are more likely to be female than male. Forty-three percent of English women with no experience of part-time HE have considered but not undertaken part-time HE compared to 32% of English men. Younger adults are also more likely to have considered part-time HE. Fifty-six percent of 18–24s had considered part-time HE compared to just 22% of over 65s, as shown in the chart below.

If this demand can be accessed then it may be possible to reverse the decline in the number of UK and other-EU part-time HE entrants. To do this, we must understand in detail the motivations of those who have considered part-time HE, and the barriers they face when attempting to access it.

The motivations of ‘considerers’

In addition to polling the general English population, we polled the views of 1,567 English adults with no experience of part-time HE who had considered but not undertaken it in the past five years.

We asked ‘considerers’ the most appealing reason for wanting to undertake part-time HE. The motivations can be placed into two separate categories: personal motivations and employment-related motivations:

  • Personal motivations include considerers who are motivated to learn more about the subject, by the opportunity of self-improvement, and for social reasons such as to make friends.
  • Employment-related motivations include considerers who want to undertake part-time HE in order to progress in their current job, to change jobs, and those who are mandated to undertake part-time HE by their employer.

Our research finds personal motivations to be the most frequently cited reason by considerers for wanting to undertake part-time HE. Fifty-two percent of considerers identified a personal motivation as the most appealing reason for wanting to undertake part-time HE compared to 46% of considerers identifying an employment-related motivation. More specifically, the three most common reasons given were: interest in the subject (31%), self-improvement (18%) and the opportunity to change job or career (16%).

The barriers to part-time HE

While the motivations of considerers are important, in order to access the latent demand for part-time HE it is essential to understand the barriers considerers face when attempting to access part-time HE.

We asked considerers to name the main reason for not pursuing their interest in part-time HE. We found there to be three main categories of barrier: financial, practical and informational.

  • Financial barriers apply to considerers that are prevented from accessing part-time HE because they cannot afford the tuition fees or living costs associated with part-time study, or are not willing to pay the price.

· Practical barriers apply to considerers that are prevented from accessing part-time HE because of the time or location of the course.

· Informational barriers apply to considerers who do not have sufficient information about the potential benefits of part-time HE study or the financial support available for it.

Financial barriers were the most widely cited reason for not pursuing an interest in part-time HE. Of the financial barriers, considerers were most likely to cite not being able to afford it as the main reason for not pursuing their interest in part-time HE (24%). Other widely cited financial barriers were: having other costs which were more important to pay for (11%), and not wanting to take on student loan debt (5%). The most widely cited practical barrier was simply that considerers lacked the time to organise it or never got round to it (12%). Considerers were also prevented from accessing part-time HE because they could not juggle their work and studies (11%) or because the course was at an inconvenient time or place (7%). For considerers, the most pressing informational barrier was a lack of information about the availability of finance or student loans which 4% reported.

Overall, 54% of considerers did not pursue their interest because of some sort of financial barrier. Thirty-four percent did not pursue their interest because of a practical barrier, and 7% because of an informational barrier.

Our polling suggests there is plenty of appetite among the general public for undertaking part-time HE education. However, these considerers are being prevented from accessing part-time study by a number of barriers, especially financial barriers. It is these financial barriers that policymakers must seek to mitigate if the decline of part-time HE is to be reversed.. In our report, we make two recommendations on how policymakers could do just that. And these policies are fiscally neutral, progressive and ensure that all the principal beneficiaries of HE (participating individuals, government, and employers) contribute financially to funding HE.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue and co-author of ‘Going part-time’