‘Extinction beckons’ for part-time adult learning

The number of part-time adult learners in HE is dwindling and must be reversed, a new report has argued

A report on the declining number of part-time adult students has warned their “extinction beckons” in many universities, unless a radical policy shake-up comes soon.

Between 2011/12 and 2017/18, the number of adults in England starting a part-time undergraduate course within the UK reduced by 60%, the report states, adding: “policymakers appear unable to stop the haemorrhaging”.

The decline meant HE would become the preserve of 18-year-olds, which would hamper social mobility and eradicate “second-chance transformations”, the report concluded.

The paper – Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners (Hepi Report 124) – by Dr John Butcher of the Open University (OU) collates views and opinions from adult learners on how university could be made more accessible.

“Part-time students are disproportionately likely to come from parts of society traditionally under-represented in higher education. Ministerial statements about there being record numbers of students ignore part-time learners. When they are included, a big drop in the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is revealed,” Dr Butcher said.

According to 2017/18 data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, one-in-six undergraduate first-year students in England and over a half of mature students (aged 24 or over) were studying part-time.

Dr Butcher suggested the inaction on the decade-long decline is because the underlying reasons are complex, and interpretations are disputed.

Offering explanations for the dwindling number of part-time mature learners, Dr Butcher highlighted the decision to increase tuition fees in England and limit access to maintenance support in 2012. He also points to the decision in 2008 to stop public funding for students taking a course at the level of an award they already held.

It is worth reflecting how, in one generation, opportunities for part-time adult learners have been so diminished
– Dr John Butcher

The report recommends


  • Tuition fees: “The introduction of a Lifelong Learning Loan Allowance, including distance learning, could lessen the kind of anxieties about loan funding described by adult learners”
  • Maintenance grants: Extra financial support for disadvantaged part-time learners
  • Incentives: “Reward financially those institutions which commit to attracting more part-time learners and supporting them to successful outcomes”
  • Outreach: There are “millions of pounds going into widening participation interventions, which exclude adult learners seeking part-time study”


  • Action from regulators: “The guidance issued to institutions by the Office for Students identifies ‘mature’ learners as a disadvantaged group but leaves it up to individual universities to decide the extent to which they are a target group and whether any access or attainment gaps need to be addressed. This is not enough”
  • Access and participation plans: majority of universities do not currently prioritise this demographic, which should be challenged
  • Admissions: Department for Education’s review of university admissions announced in April 2019 should ensure central university admissions systems are evaluated fairly for part-time learners
  • Better information: Advice and guidance should be properly promoted to adult learners


  • Step-on, step-off system: create opportunities for adult learners to start and stop their learning around their personal lives. Extend accelerated learning
  • Level 4/5: more level 4 and 5 qualifications would offer a route to HE qualifications


  • Become part-time student aware: “Starting part-time study in higher education as an adult is unlike starting full-time study at age 18/19. The learning experience is not a simple continuation from school or college; it is rather a transition involving unforeseen re-balancing in relation to home and work responsibilities”
  • Confidence: lecturers should boost returner confidence with regular feedback and encouragement
  • Change language: include advice on managing mortgages and maintaining a marriage while a studying
  • Timetables: “Part-time learners consistently express concerns about inflexibility: especially in relation to timetabling, which defaults to assumptions that all students are full-time”
  • Pastoral support: “Students in rural areas were isolated from peers and could experience transport difficulties limiting their learning opportunities”

100th anniversary of adult learning

According to the 2018 Sutton Trust’s report The Lost Part-timers,between 2010 and 2015, the number of part-time students in England declined by 51%, from 216,000 in 2010 to 106,000 in 2015. The Open University experiencing an even bigger fall of 63% which the OU said is because it offered many courses below degree level that are not eligible for loans.

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the Final Report of the Adult Education Committee of the Ministry of Reconstruction. This 1919 policy document argued for lifelong adult learning to deal with the aftermath of the First World War. It described adult education as “a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship”, which “should be spread uniformly and systematically over the whole community”.

Reflecting on the anniversary, Dr Butcher said: “It is worth reflecting how, in one generation, opportunities for part-time adult learners have been so diminished.”

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