UK business creates elitist system for part-time study

UK businesses provide the lion’s share of financial support for staff studying part-time, but its exclusivity is creating an elitist system reveals the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s (HECSU) ‘Futuretrack: Part-time Students’ study, published today (10 June 2010).

The research, conducted by Birkbeck University of London and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, studied 3,704 part-time undergraduate students from across the UK. It has raised concerns over the cost of part-time study and the nature of financial support available to students – all important issues for the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance.

It reveals the average annual cost of part-time study is £1,730 of which £1,166 goes on tuition and £564 on other course costs such as books. Only 14% of students received a government fee grant and for 43% of them the funds were not enough to meet the cost of their tuition. In contrast, 41% received help from their employer of which only 17% had to find additional finances. 

In terms of course costs, 19% were awarded a government grant, which was insufficient for two-thirds (68%) of students. Employers supported students in other forms such as offering paid time-off work to study (47%) and contributions towards course expenses (15%).

‘Futuretrack: Part-time Students’ revealed that students who received employer contributions were from high or medium income households, and therefore in least need of support. In contrast, those students most in need of financial support receive it from the government or higher education institution.

Mike Hill, chief executive at HECSU says: “Employers are clearly very supportive of their staff taking on part-time study, both financially and in-kind. However, they are also selective in who they invest in, favouring the most advantaged in their workforce. By supporting those in least need of support a lot of disadvantaged groups are missing out.

“Relying on business contributions for part-time study puts its ‘fairness’ in jeopardy, creating an elitist and exclusive system. It means that course selection is driven by the potentially short-term views of the employer rather than the more personal long-term view of the student. Government funding should ultimately look to balance this, but at the moment it’s insufficient.”

Claire Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck University of London adds: “State-funded student financial support helps to compensate for the absence of employer support for tuition fees for students who need it most, acting as a safety net and making up for market failure. However, access to government support is not driven by financial need but by students’ existing qualifications and hours of study, which automatically disqualifies the majority of part-time undergraduates. Consequently a vast number of part time students don’t receive this kind of support, including disadvantaged groups.

“The financial support available to part-time students does not promote widening participation and fair access, and is in stark contrast to the much more generous and comprehensive funds available for full-timers.”

The study also revealed that both students and employers are reaping the benefits of part-time study even before their course is completed. Impacting directly on performance and productivity at work, 80% of students had made good use of their new knowledge in their job, more than half (54%) had taken on more responsibility  and nearly two-thirds (65%) felt it had improved their ability to do their job.

For further information and to read the full report visit www.hecsu.ac.uk

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