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Birkbeck calls for the way part-time degrees are funded to change to reduce tuition fees by 50%

Part-time degrees are important drivers of social mobility and will be vital to reskilling the workforce post-Brexit by enabling people to work whilst studying, but the number of part-time undergraduates has more than halved since tuition fees increased dramatically in 2012.

Birkbeck, University of London is asking the government to change the way part-time undergraduate degrees are funded to reduce the tuition fees paid by students by 50%. It is calling for the reduction to be backed by a commitment from the government to make up the difference. The proposal acknowledges that the majority of part-time undergraduates are mature students who are more debt averse and who have more financial commitments than their counterparts who join university straight from school and who are therefore less likely to take on a large loan to pay for degrees. It would make degrees more affordable for more people.

The call is intended to boost demand for part-time degrees, which are important drivers of social mobility and which will be vital to reskilling the workforce post-Brexit because they enable people to work whilst studying. The number of part-time undergraduates has more than halved since tuition fees increased dramatically in 2012. However, in Wales, where part-time fees were kept low, part-time student numbers largely held up.

Birkbeck’s proposal would see the fee paid by the students for its four-year part-time degrees cut from £6935 to £3500 per year, making the cost to students £14,000 over the four years of a part-time degree. It also proposes that there is a means-tested loan available to cover the fee, with households with an income of less than £30,000 a year eligible to receive a loan for the full amount. Under its proposal, if maintenance loans continued to be available at their current rate, the cost to the government of cutting the fee in half would be around £1500 more per part-time student per year than at present. If maintenance loans were reduced by half and removed from households earning over £35,000 a year, it is estimated that the reduction in fees would cost the government no more than the current system.

Part-time degree courses make sense for many students, employers and the country as a whole because they allow students to work whilst studying and gain the skills that employers need in an evolving labour market. However, higher education policy has historically focused on providing full-time degrees to 18-23 year old undergraduates joining university straight from school. Those wishing to study part-time, many but not all of whom are mature students who missed out on education at age 18, have often suffered ‘unintended consequences’ of policies developed with full-time traditional universities in mind.

In particular, part-time degrees enable people who missed out on higher education at 18 years of age to benefit from higher level study and advance or change their careers. They can also give young part-time students a head start on the career ladder over full-time undergraduates and importantly, part-time study enables students to work whilst they are at university so that they can offset living and tuition costs. Students who work whilst studying benefit the economy because they are economically productive during their student years and contribute to UK Plc through tax and national insurance. Mature students who are already in work before enrolling are likely to improve their employment position and increase their salary, and therefore pay higher taxes for the remainder of their working lives. Part-time degrees are also beneficial to employers as the help employees to develop and learn new skills whilst they work.

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck said: “Most universities tend to focus on providing full-time degrees for undergraduates who join straight from school but there are many thousands of people who want to study part-time. Many are mature students who have existing financial commitments such as mortgages and families to support. That is why I am asking the Government to change the funding model, so that at no - or minimal - additional cost to government, part-time higher education can be made more affordable for and accessible to many more of those who would benefit from its life-changing effects”.

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