Susan Stewart: Why don't we support part-time students? Not everyone can give up a job to retrain

The independent review of student support in ­Scotland, commissioned by the Scottish Government last year and published at the end of November, notes that there are more than 230,000 students studying part-time across Scottish further and higher education. Unfortunately, with respect to part-time students, that is about as far as it goes.

Susan Stewart is the Director of The Open University in Scotland.
Susan Stewart is the Director of The Open University in Scotland.

Fairness, parity and clarity are the watchwords of the review, arguing – rightly, I believe – that students in ­further education should have access to student maintenance support, just as do students in higher education.

The central recommendation is that there should be an annual entitlement to a minimum student income of £8,100, comprising a mix of loans and bursaries, for all students.

Except, on closer inspection, ‘all’ actually means ‘some’. Parity refers only to type of education – further or higher – and not to mode of study. The minimum income recommendation applies only to full-time ­students; the review acknowledges “that additional work will be needed on the impact on part-time students”.

Part-time students, whether in ­further or higher education, are not currently eligible for standard maintenance support.

This review was an overdue ­opportunity to fix that, but instead part-time study has been kicked into the long grass – again. The review suggests that the Scottish Government and others should consider how part-time students could be ­supported. The Commission on Widening Access, which reported in March 2016, did the same thing.

This does not make sense. Widening access to higher education, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear time and time again, is a national priority.

Part-time study has a massive role to play in creating opportunities, reaching students for whom full-time study is impossible. Its continued exclusion from public policy ­discussion is problematic and potentially self-defeating.

Part-time students tend to come from the backgrounds we – as a sector and a nation – say we want to reach. To draw examples from my own ­institution, 17 per cent of new entrants across Scotland come from the most-deprived quintile of ­communities. In Glasgow, that figure rises to fully 40 per cent . More than two-thirds have an individual income of less than £25,000 per year, despite the fact that more than half of OU students in Scotland are in ­full-time work and another fifth are working part-time.

Just over 20 per cent declare a disability and just under 20 per cent come to us with a college higher national qualification (whereas almost 20 per cent don’t actually have traditional university entrance qualifications). Of the 42 per cent studying STEM subjects, 47 per cent are female.

This is what wider access looks like. We cannot widen access with a ­narrow focus on school leavers. Learner journeys are not linear. The traditional pathway from school straight into a four year full-time degree does not work for everyone.

It follows that we need to support alternative routes into and through higher education, routes which allow students the flexibility to study in a manner that suits them and their circumstances. Part-time provision does that, but in focusing only on full-time students the review, like many other reports, falls short.

Of course, the evidence shows that part-time students behave differently when it comes to student finance. We know that from how they have reacted to increased fees in ­England, where an aversion to taking on increased debt has contributed to a 61 per cent collapse in first year part-time undergraduates since 2008/09.

But excluding part-time students from proposals around maintenance support is a different scenario. Fees always need to be paid, whether by the state or the individual.

The requirement for maintenance support depends on a student’s ­individual circumstances. Some will conclude that they need it and some won’t, perhaps calculating that they can earn enough to see them through. But to exclude part-time students, based solely on the mode of study that works for them, denies them even the option of that support.

Studies have shown that in our increasingly dynamic economy, we won’t have enough school leavers to fill the anticipated jobs of the future. Scotland needs people to have the option to upskill and retrain in order to change jobs and careers.

For most people in work, that means part-time study. Access to higher education throughout our working lives is not a luxury, it is an economic necessity.

It falls to the Scottish Government to decide how or whether to ­proceed with the review’s recommendations. I hope that, with the principles of ­fairness, parity and clarity in mind, ministers will conclude that a broader, more inclusive approach – one which acknowledges that mode of study is not an acceptable means by which to exclude ­students from support – is both economically sensible and socially just.

Susan Stewart is director of the Open University in Scotland. This piece originally appeared on ­