Up until 2006/07 the number of part-time undergraduate students in England had been rising annually. This changed to a fall in 2008/09 and the decline became precipitous from 2011/12.

From a peak of almost 590,000 in 2008/09 part-time student numbers fell to just over 310,000 in 2015/16; a fall of 47%.

The decline in part-time students is more than a concern for individuals as part-time studies improve overall skill levels and benefit the wider economy. Part-time higher education is also an important part of the widening participation agenda and a driver of social mobility.

The charts below illustrate this decline and ask what might be the cause behind it.


There were around 540,000 part-time students in UK higher education institutions in 2015/16, including around 312,000 under-graduates and 228,000 post-graduates.

Around 100% of students with The Open University were part-time, compared to 73% of students with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), 69% at Birkbeck College, 56% at Harper Adams and 52% at St George’s, University of London (SGUL).

There were 540,000 part-time students at UK unis in 2015/16

This was just over a quarter of students in total

... but many more at some universities

Who are the part-timers?

Part-time students are more likely to be white, women, home students and aged over 30.

There were more women than men

Among undergraduates, the majority were aged 30+

The majority were home students

Among undergraduates, part-timers are mainly white

There were more undergraduates

... who were mostly taking their first degree or an "other" degree

How have part-time numbers changed over time?

While numbers have fallen by 38% since 2009/10, this fall has been concentrated among undergraduates.

The number of students doing “other” degrees, such as 2nd undergraduate degrees, fell the most – there were around 150,000 fewer part-time undergraduates taking “other” degrees in 2015/16 compared to 2009/10.

In contrast, full-time student numbers have increased.

Numbers are down by 38% since a peak in 2009/10

This fall has been concentrated among undergraduates

Foundation and other undergraduate degrees fell the most, 2009/10 to 2015/16

The number of new undergraduates was down by over 60%...

...while the number of new postgrads was a bit more stable

... and full-time numbers increased

Why is this decline important?

Part time students are an important source of income. In 2015/16, fees were worth £850 million from home/EU students. Part-time students contributed 2.5% of total income from all sources in England in 2015/16, especially important to:

  • The Open University (50% of total income)
  • Birkbeck (28%)
  • Suffolk (10%)
  • Staffordshire (9%)
  • Teesside (9%)

Part-time education improves skills of people in employment and contributes to economic growth.

Universities UK describes part-time higher education as playing “a vital role in up-skilling and re-skilling.”

The Higher Education Funding Council for England warns that “if adults are choosing not to retrain in the face of falling relative wages, that could lead to long-term, structural unemployment.”

The Workers’ Educational Association predicts that “the UK will be increasingly reliant on opportunities for retraining and reskilling as technological change further disrupts old industries and economic models.”

Part-time education helps to widen participation in Higher Education Part-timers more likely than full-timers to be:

  • Older
  • Have disabilities
  • Come from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Have caring responsibilities
  • In general, be part of a ‘hard to reach’ group who missed out on full-time study.

What has caused this decline?

The Funding Council has suggested possible causes for the decline in numbers include:

  • Cuts in funding for equivalent and lower qualifications from 2008/09;
  • End of promotion of employer co-sponsorship;
  • Reforms made in 2012;
  • The 2008 recession and its aftermath;
  • Public sector austerity measures.

Alternatively, others have suggested cause might include:

  • Debt aversion among older students;
  • A fall in financial support from employers during and after the recession;
  • A decline in ‘leisure learning’;
  • Universities increasingly withdrawing from provision of part-time undergraduate courses other than first degrees.

Changes made in 2012 have been suggested as one cause...

...But the decline started before then

The fall was larger in England and accelerated after 2012

Picture credit: Graduation, The Open University, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)