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Higher Education: Part-time and Mature Students

Volume 641: debated on Monday 14 May 2018

3. What steps his Department is taking to tackle the decreasing number of part-time and mature students in higher education. (905247)

Part-time participation in higher education is absolutely important to making higher education accessible to everyone and promoting lifelong learning. We have adopted a number of measures to support part-time and mature students. For example, next year part-time students will for the first time ever be able to access full-time equivalent maintenance loans.

The Minister will be aware that since the Government tripled tuition fees to £9,000, the number of part-time student applications has fallen by a staggering 59%. Even the former Universities Minister David Willetts has said that that is a disaster. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to a whole generation of would-be part-time students and outline in a little more detail than he just gave what steps he is going to take to reverse this awful trend?

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the downward trend in part-time students, which actually started before the tuition fee changes. The Prime Minister has announced a review of post-18 education and funding, which will look into, among other things, flexible, part-time and distance learning, as well as commuter study options, to boost the options available to those who want to pursue such a course of study.

I declare an interest: I read history. Many graduates see an advantage in returning to higher education to learn a STEM subject. What are the Government doing to aid those people in particular?

My hon. Friend refers to the qualifications required for someone to be able to go back and study for a further degree. We have relaxed the “equivalent or lower qualification” rules to support students who already have a degree and wish to retrain in a STEM subject on a part-time basis. If my hon. Friend is contemplating an engineering degree in his spare time, the way is open.

First, may I associate myself and those on the Scottish National party Benches with the Secretary of State’s remarks regarding the sad passing of Dame Tessa Jowell?

Last year, more than 38,000 non-UK students enrolled on part-time higher education courses. Such students are important for universities’ income streams and for the wider local economy, so what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that part-time students from the EU are not subject to harsh immigration rules post Brexit?

Part-time students from the EU will be treated in the same way as full-time students from the EU. We have made our position on EU students clear. We will make announcements in respect of future years—2019-20 and 2020-21—in due course.

Does the Minister not realise that since tripling HE tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, Tory-led Governments have been a disaster for mature and part-time students in England? As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) said, there has been a 59% drop in part-time student applications. That has left scores of continuing education centres in HE axed, while our iconic, world-renowned Open University, where I proudly taught for 20 years, is in crisis. What is the Minister going to do now—not after a wait for pittances in the 2019 review—to protect the OU, where students will not benefit from the loans he talks about, and others from policies that have become both socially and economically insane?

Of the £1.3 billion of grant funding that the Higher Education Funding Council for England allocated to support teaching in higher education last year, £72 million went to part-time study. The Open University received £48 million of that, and 47,000 students have steady part-time courses there. We are supporting the OU. It is going through restructuring at the moment, but as I have often said, the review is looking at that and we will ensure that it continues to deliver excellent education for part-time students.