By Claire Callender and David Wilkinson –
In 2008, 31% of the UK workforce had a Level 4 qualification or above, placing the UK in 12th position in international rankings (UKCES, 2010). To improve the UK’s competitiveness and its economic strength, this proportion needs to increase and the workforces’ skill levels raised. Part-time higher education (HE) study has a particularly significant role to play now and in the future in raising, updating, and improving the skill levels of people already in employment, ensuring they possess the skills and qualifications required by employers. It can help to fill skill gaps, and by combining work experience with study, it can increase the supply of highly-educated people with the types of ‘employability skills’ widely sought by employers. Another attraction is that part-time study minimises absence from work, with individuals investing their own time in work-related study (Mason and Hopkin, 2011).
In addition, as the 2011 UK White Paper Higher Education: Students at the heart of the system (BIS, 2011) confirms, part-time study can further the government’s wider HE policy objectives and is integral to their vision of the future of HE. It can provide educational opportunities throughout people’s lives, increase social mobility, and help create a more diverse and responsive HE sector while giving students greater choice and enhancing their HE experience. To make part-time HE more affordable and accessible, for the first time part-time undergraduates in England will be eligible for student loans to cover the costs of their tuition fees. Consequently, twice as many – around a third – of part-time undergraduates will qualify for government-funded financial support from 2012–13.
However, just increasing the proportion of the working population with an HE qualification may not necessarily meet our skills needs. As a recent OECD (2012) report reminds us, skills need to be used effectively and bring real, sustainable benefits to the individuals concerned. Indeed, the UK Commission on Employment and Skills (UKCES) argues: ‘Skill acquisition which does not enhance employability, earnings, labour market progression or which does not bring other economic and social returns, is a waste of public and private resources’ (UKCES, 2010 p.109).
Yet a review of existing research on the benefits of part-time HE published since 1999 noted that ‘research on the impacts of part-time study on graduates and any benefits that accrue to the individual or society…is still rare’ (Bennion et al, 2011 p.150). To help fill this gap, we undertook a study for UK CES to explore the impact of HE study for part-time students in the UK (Callender and Wilkinson, 2011). We analysed the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) data from the Longitudinal Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey which follows up full- and part-time undergraduates six months and 3½ years after graduation. We aimed to compare the labour market experiences of graduates of part-time study with those of full-time study focussing on employability, earnings, and labour market progression. Here we concentrate on the outcomes 3½ years after graduation for 3,800 part-timers and 26,330 full-timers.A third of all UK undergraduates study part-time and our analysis took into account their characteristics. Part-timers are very different from full-timers and more heterogeneous. The majority are older and women who are employed fulltime and have family commitments. Most do not study for a bachelor’s degree as full-timers do, but take vocationally orientated and professional qualifications. Unlike full-time undergraduates who typically enter HE with A Levels (Level 3 qualifications), part-timers’ entry qualifications are polarised. A high proportion have prior experience of HE, already hold a Bachelor’s degree, and are re-skilling, often with financial support from their employer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a substantial minority have no or low-level entry qualifications. They are up-skilling and taking advantage of ‘second chance’ learning opportunities, which they pay for themselves or sometimes with government-funded financial support. However, irrespective of whether parttime undergraduates are re-skilling or up skilling most want an HE qualification to getahead and to meet their career ambitions (Callender et al, 2010).
So what are the effects of HE on graduate employment and what are the differences between those that studied part- or full-time? Our analysis shows that the same proportion of graduates from part- and from full-time study are employed (88%) or unemployed (3%) 3½ years after graduation. However, part-time study is less likely than full-time study to help unemployed job seekers back into work.
The majority of UK graduates, irrespective of their mode of study while undergraduates, are employed in the top three occupation categories (Managers and Senior Officials, Professional occupations, and Associate Professional and Technical occupations) 3½ years after graduation (77% of graduates from part-time study compared with 73% from full time study). However, a much higher proportion of graduates from part- than full-time study work in the public rather than the private sector (59% compared with 44%), and have permanent jobs (87% compared with 79%) 3½ years after leaving HE.
Graduates’ levels of employment vary by their characteristics. For instance, older graduates are less likely to be employed than younger graduates 3½ years after graduation. However, within different age bands, the employment rates of graduates do not differ by their mode of study. This is also true for different motivations to study. Employment rates, however, do differ by mode of study for graduates with different levels of entry qualifications. Significantly, graduates from part-time study with high-level entry qualifications, who are mainly re-skilling, and those with lowlevel entry qualifications, who are primarily up-skilling, have higher employment rates 3½ years after graduation than similar graduates from full-time study.
Turning to graduates’ earnings, those in full-time employment graduating from part-time study earn more on average than similar graduates from full-time study, especially if they are older and received government help with their fees whilst studying (mostly low-income students). So, 3½ years after leaving HE, 84% of parttime graduates earn more than £20,000 compared with 73% of full-time graduates. However, between six months and 3½ years after graduation, their salaries grow at a slower pace compared with their full-time peers. But part-timers who received help with their fees from the government or their employer whilst studying are more likely to see their pay rise than similar full-time graduates.
Our findings confirm the very real benefits of part-time HE study for individuals, employers, and society. Part-time study helps meet the UK government’s skills agenda while also contributing to their HE policy objectives. Our findings also show the positive impact of making part-time study more affordable and the wisdom of improving access to, and the level of, financial support for part-time study, especially for low-income individuals with low-level qualifications that wish to upskill.
The government intends to do this by introducing student loans to cover the tuition fees of part-time students from 2012–13. These loans are based on the idea that those who benefit from HE should contribute towards its costs, and on assumptions about the private returns of HE in terms of employment prospects and higher wages on graduation.
Our findings suggest that student loans for part-time students are justified in terms of: the private and public returns to such an investment including the higher employment rates of part-time graduates without a Level 3 qualification compared with similar full-time peers; the increased productivity of low-income employees as measured by the higher pay levels and pay progression of those in receipt of government-funded awards; and on the grounds of equity by increasing social mobility both for those entering part-time study with low-level qualifications and for those with low-incomes in receipt of government-funded fee awards.
The higher pay levels of graduates from part-time study suggest that they are likely to repay their student loans at a faster rate than graduates from full-time study, and to pay higher interest rates. Both will benefit the Exchequer and make loans for parttimers potentially cheaper for the public purse than those for full-time students.
However, we must not forget that only a third of part-time students will qualify for these loans – only those who do not already have a degree or Level 3 qualification and are studying at least 25% of a full-time course. At the same time, from 2012–13, there will be a threefold increase in most part-time tuition fees. We do know what impact these changes will have on the demand for part-time study. Particularly vulnerable is demand amongst the majority of would-be part-time students, especially those who are re-skilling, who neither qualify for loans nor receive financial support from their employer with their tuition fees. These students will be faced with fees of up to £6,750 a year, which they will have to pay upfront and out of their own pocket.
It is these students who are most likely to be deterred from part-time HE study because of the changes in HE funding, and yet they too would clearly benefit from part-time study. Investing in skills development throughout a person’s lifetime is at the heart of skills policies, and part-time HE study is integral to that. We must ensure that UK HE funding policies support that ambition rather than quash it.
Bennion, A., Scesa, A. and Williams, R. (2011) The benefits of part-time study and UK higher education policy, Higher Education Quarterly, 65(2): 145–63.
BIS (2011) Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System (white paper), June. Department for Business, Innovation and Skill. Available at: http://goo.gl/hNSKu.
Callender, C., Hopkin, R., and Wilkinson D. (2010) Futuretrack: Part-Time Students Career Decision- Making and Career Development of Part-Time Higher Education Students. Manchester: Higher Education Careers Services Unit.
Callender, C. and Wilkinson, D. with Gibson, A. and Perkins, C. (2011) The Impact of Higher Education for Part-Time Students, Evidence Report 36. London and Wath-upon-Dearne: UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
Mason, G and Hopkin,R (2011) Employer Perspectives on Part-Time Students in UK Higher Education, Research Report 27, London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
OECD (2012) Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives. A Strategic Approach to Skills Policies. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
UK Commission for Employment and Skills (2010) Ambition 2020: World Class Skills and Jobs for the UK. London and Wath-upon-Dearne: UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
Claire Callender is Professor of Higher Education at the Institute of Education and at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research focuses on student finances in higher education and related issues, including studies for the most significant UK inquiries into student funding. Claire has given evidence to various House of Commons Education Select Committees and to the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. Claire was awarded a Fulbright New Century Scholarship, spending time at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The Institute of Education was rated the pre-eminent UK educational research institution in the last Research Assessment Exercise. It is the largest UK provider of postgraduate courses in the field of education with some 1,700 students studying on master’s programmes, and some 800 research students, mostly studying for PhD and EdD degrees.
Birkbeck is a world-class research and teaching institution, ranked in the top 150 universities of the world, a vibrant centre of academic excellence, and London’s only specialist provider of evening and part-time higher education. It has nearly 18,000 students including over 5,000 postgraduates and a wide range of programmes to suit every entry level.
David Wilkinson is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). He specialises in quantitative analytical research focusing on inequalities in education, and labour market disadvantage.
NIESR is Britain’s longest established independent economic research institute with over 60 years’ experience of applying academic excellence to the needs of business and policy makers. The Institute’s work falls into three distinct fields: economic modelling and macro analysis; education, training and employment; the international economy.