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

From a peak of almost 590,000 in 2008/09 part-time undergraduate student numbers fell to just under 270,000 in 2019/20; a fall of 50%. There was an increase in 2020/21, which could, in part, be due to the pandemic, but numbers were still 43% below their peak.

The cause of the collapse in part-time student numbers is complex. The fall in numbers has been attributed to a number of factors: the policy of removing funding for equivalent or lower level qualifications (ELQs), the economic downturn and the 2012 higher education funding reforms which led to an increase in tuition fees.

Part-time students are a very different group demographically to full-time undergraduate students and are less homogenous. Part-time students tend to be older than full-time students and high numbers are female. They are more likely to be in work and have caring responsibilities. Understanding the motivations and behaviours of part-time students could be key to reversing the downward trend in numbers.

The decline in part-time students is more than a concern for individual students. Individuals tend to undertake part-time studies to improve their skills, or to reskill for employment purposes. Part-time higher education can therefore create a more highly skilled workforce which benefits the whole economy and is essential to increase national productivity.

There are also equality issues around part-time education as a high proportion of part-time students come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have disabilities. Part-time higher education is therefore an important part of the widening participation agenda and is a driver of social mobility.

The state of part-time higher education therefore has a far reaching impact and reversing the decline in part-time students could have potentially wide ranging benefits for individuals, society and the economy.

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