Fewer mature students are graduating. Photo: Robert Nicholas
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The real victims of this government's changes to tuition fees have been forgotten

The number of part-time students has fallen by a third since 2010.

When tuition fees were trebled four years ago, it elicited uproar from the student movement. Yet – to everyone’s surprise – the number of disadvantaged pupils studying for undergraduate degrees has since risen to record highs.

Meanwhile, the real victims of the changes to tuition fees have been forgotten. These are not undergraduates starting at University just after school, but mature and part-time students. Here the picture is far more sobering for the government.

In the last four years, the number of part-time students studying for first, foundation or other undergraduate degrees in the UK has fallen by over a third. From 580,000 in 2009/10, the number has fallen to 368,000 today. The trend is even more pronounced among older students: the Sutton Trust has found that 100,000 fewer students aged 25 and above started part-time higher education courses in 2012/13 than 2009/10 – a reduction of 43 per cent.

When it comes to mature students coming for full-time degrees, the situation is almost as bleak. There was an 18 per cent decline in the number of students aged 25 and over taking up places in 2013 compared to 2010.

One explanation for the decline in part-time and mature students is the economic crisis. It has made companies less likely to support employees studying part-time alongside their work, and people more reluctant to leave steady employment to study. Yet these factors do not explain why the fall in student numbers has been more dramatic in England than Scotland, which has no fees, and Northern Ireland and Wales, which effectively cap fees at £3,685. Since 2010 the fall in all part-time students (including both undergraduate and postgraduate) has been over twice as high in England as in Scotland, while there has been only a negligible fall in Wales and part-time students have actually risen in Northern Ireland.


“In comparing the figures for England with those for other parts of the UK where tuition fees didn’t increase so sharply, it was clear that the rise in fees did play a significant role,” explains Ruth Thompson, the co-chair of the Higher Education Commission inquiry into the financial sustainability of higher education in England. “The Commission expressed great concern that choking off lifelong learning and skills development risked choking off economic growth.”

For those who are already earning, paying back tuition fees amounts to an extra nine per cent tax rate. So if part-time studying does not lead to them earning more, they will actually be worse off: someone earning £25,000 a year would have to pay back an extra £360 a year in tax, for instance. Putting adults off investing in improving their education is no way to win the global race. Ultimately the result is a less skilled economy.

Another consequence is to entrench the lack of social mobility. Those who apply to University later have often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and higher education offers them the chance of closing the gap. “Many part-time and mature students come from less advantaged backgrounds,” explains Sir Peter Lampl, the Chairman of the Sutton Trust. “The fees hike has had a serious and detrimental impact on their education and career prospects.” He argues that the government must “reassess the level of fees” and develop outreach strategies targeted at mature students to ensure higher education is “accessible to all”.

If the decline in part-time students does not resonate in the way that a collapse in undergraduate students of school leaving age would it is no less significant. Encouraging more adults to higher education should be a central plank of equipping the UK economy for the 21st century. Far too many adults are being put off from furthering their education.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.