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Education: Part-Time University Study

Volume 745: debated on Monday 3 June 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are taking any action to address the decline in the numbers of those opting for part-time university study.

My Lords, to encourage new part-time undergraduates, the coalition Government introduced non-means-tested tuition fee loans for the first time in 2012. We have asked HEFCE to continue monitoring changes in part-time demand and supply, and we are working with Universities UK on its review of part-time study, which will identify barriers to participation by prospective part-time students and offer practical advice. Our communications activity for 2013-14, including our student finance tour, will include activities specifically targeted at part-time applicants.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I declare an interest as the president of Birkbeck. The increase of university fees in 2012 led to a dramatic downturn in part-time studies, which creates real problems. As part-time study is clearly a way forward in education, with benefits to employers, individuals and the economy, will the Government guarantee that they will implement the findings of the Universities UK review when it is published in the autumn?

First, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment as president of Birkbeck. Of course, Birkbeck is one of the tremendous organisations, along with the Open University, that provide the major part of opportunities for part-time students. Certainly, we are hoping that with the introduction of loans for part-time students for the first time, that message will get through and encourage more part-timers to study. Although I cannot stand here hand on heart and agree that the Government will implement every last dot and comma of the Universities UK report, I assure her that we will take it very seriously and keep talking to Birkbeck and the OU about what more can be done.

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister has just said, it was this Government who introduced loans for part-time students for the first time, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, will be aware. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to increase awareness of the availability of income-contingent loans among part-time students, many of whom are much more cautious with their money?

My noble friend is right. I have just mentioned the student tour. We also know that the Student Room has dedicated information on finance for part-time students, and we hope that the messages that go out to the different universities and institutions that particularly look after part-time students will encourage them to take advantage of the finances that are available. He is quite right that the older students may well be more cautious, but of course most of the part-time students will also be earning in some capacity or another and therefore may feel that this is a good use of their money.

My Lords, the number of part-time students has gone down by 40% since 2010. Since it is known that many of them come from more disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minorities, is this policy not a serious blow to not only our universities but the prospects of greater social mobility and equality in this country?

I agree with the noble Lord that part-time study is an incredible asset in social mobility and a benefit to the community and individuals as well. With the measures that we are taking on student loans and in trying to get the message across to encourage people to study, we hope that we will be able to build on the ideas coming out of the Universities UK review.

My Lords, when did the Minister or one of her colleagues meet with Michael Russell, the Education Minister in Scotland, to discuss this matter and other matters of mutual interest? Can she tell us what matters were discussed at these meetings?

I am afraid that I personally have not met the Minister; that would be for somebody above my level of responsibility. However, I am quite sure that my colleagues at the Department for Education are regularly in contact with the devolved Administrations. We have a great deal to learn from each other in working together on these matters. Perhaps I will write to the noble Lord.

Does the Minister have any data on the proportions of men and women who go into part-time higher education? Are the Government aware of any particular obstacles; for example, for women with young children who would like to go back into education?

I do not have those data readily to hand. Of course, anecdotally, one is aware that part-time education very often appeals to women with children, to help keep their brains active when their bodies are more than active with small children. If we have data, I will write to the noble Baroness. We would hope that there would be no additional barriers to either men or women going into part-time study.

My Lords, given that part-time study represents a significant investment by people in their own future for the benefit of society and for themselves, would it not be right to consider that those fees should be tax-deductible?

Again, my Lords, that is for another Question and another day. The noble Lord makes a valid point, but it is not directly relevant to this Question.

My Lords, in the previous Question I asked the Minister about the difference between England, Wales and Scotland with regard to part-time students. Can the Minister answer, please?

As I say, I do not have breakdowns of the numbers of part-time students in the devolved Administrations, but we are in constant dialogue with the devolved Administrations to try to ensure that we can learn from best practice. However, as the noble Lord well knows, there are different systems in different parts of the UK.