Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education Contents

Chapter 5: Flexible learning

“If you tried to design the decline of adult learning opportunities in Britain over the past 15 years, you would struggle to do it as well as we have done it by accident.”174

I have to accept that [the decline in part-time students] is one of my biggest regrets about my time as Minister. [ … ] The evidence is that the loans for part-time students have not worked.”175

162.The full-time three-year undergraduate degree, entered into at a young age, is the predominant mode of study in higher education. The funding system is designed with this model in mind. But it does not lend itself particularly well to flexible learning: for example, those wishing to learn flexibly are often older learners wishing to retrain.

Box 6: Accelerated degrees

One form of flexible learning is compressed or accelerated degrees. On such courses a three year undergraduate degree is completed in two years. This is usually achieved by students studying through the summer. Currently only 0.2 per cent of students study such courses.176Three quarters of those who responded to a 2016 Government consultation on this issue “reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers.”177

Universities highlighted the funding and practical impediments to accelerated degrees. Sir Antony Seldon, of Buckingham University (which offers such courses), told us that “the current system means that there are financial disincentives to universities that want to offer two-year undergraduate degrees”.178

Professor Virgo suggested that “the compressed degree is incompatible with the research-intensive universities’ mission to do both teaching and research” as the latter occurred over the course of the summer months.179

The Government has acknowledged that “existing fee cap arrangements do inhibit wider provision of accelerated courses.” It launched a consultation on proposals to allow universities to charge up to £11,000 a year for two year courses. 180

163.The concept of flexible learning covers a number of different types of education, including:

164.Flexible learning—in particular provision for part-time and older learners—has been stifled by the distorted incentives for both students and universities created by the student loan system and a higher education market. In addition, the decline of flexible learning has been hastened by policies restricting the availability of funding. Similar declines have been seen in the further education sector.

165.In this section we detail recent trends in flexible learning and consider the causes of the decline in student numbers; the economic benefits from flexible learning; and how these trends can be reversed.

Benefits of flexible learning

166.Flexible learning has the potential to offer significant benefits to individual learners, employers and the economy.

167.For individuals it may enable their continued participation in the labour market. GuildHE characterised part-time learners as “mainly adults juggling work, caring and other responsibilities with study” by training “they are [ … ] providing Britain with the qualified workforce we need.”181 The CBI said that flexible learning allowed employers to retain workers “rather than employees leaving an industry to pursue full-time study.”182

168.Learning new skills will be necessary due to the changes in demographics, the nature of work and the labour market. Matt Houlihan of CISCO predicted that it would be “the absolute norm for people to have to retrain, reskill and build their skill sets throughout their careers.” Professor David Latchman CBE suggested it was “madness” to assume “that you will never need to get other qualifications between 21 and 61.”183 Careers for life are disappearing. On average today’s new entrants to the labour market expect to have four or five different careers. This trend is likely to continue, maybe accelerate. The sector is behind the curve.

169.Professor Madeleine Atkins suggested that the decline in mature education was “worrying” for “ the country’s skill demands” and the re-training “needed across many sectors.”184 Universities UK added that demand for skills could not “be solely met through the training of young, full-time graduates”; “adults will need to retrain “.185

170.As set out above, below degree level skills are a particular weakness in the UK economy. Professor Keep suggested that planning for future lifelong and flexible learning must include these skills:

“We need to think about Levels 4 and 5, and shorter courses. [Going] back to the original foundation degrees, the assumption was that most of the people doing them would be in work and would do them part-time. That is the future.”186

Box 7: Flexible Learning and the Industrial Strategy

In the Industrial Strategy the Government acknowledged the “growing challenge with lifelong learning: supporting people to up-skill and re-skill across their working lives.”187 The Industrial Strategy said that to improve adult learning and retraining, a National Retraining Scheme would be introduced by the end of this Parliament. To implement these aims the Government has announced two small schemes.

For flexible learning in further education, a £40 million package to “test innovative approaches to helping adults up-skill and re-skill” was announced in the 2017 Spring Budget.188

In October 2017 £10 million of this funding was opened to bidding from providers. To win funding, projects must “centre on the delivery of basic skills, or on intermediate or higher level technical learning”. Proposals are expected to fit within at least one of four “categories of interest”: the delivery of flexible or convenient timetable; delivery outside the classroom; online and blended learning for adults; and learning aimed at those with caring responsibilities.189


171.Flexible learning students include those studying part-time; older learners who often study part-time; and those seeking flexible methods of leaning such as online or distance studying. Some flexible learning is offered or supported by employers as part of workplace development and training. There is considerable overlap between these three types of student. All have declined.

Degree level

172.Between 2010 and 2016 there was a 60 per cent fall in part-time students.190 As Figure 5 shows, the decline in part-time undergraduate numbers began in 2008/09 and fell more steeply after 2012.

Figure 5: Part-time students (first year entrants, UK providers), 2005/06 to 2016/17

Line chart showing numbers of part-time undergraduate and post-graduate first year entrants from 2005/06 to 2016/17

Source: Higher Education Statistics Authority, First year students by level and mode of study (February 2018): [accessed 29 May 2018]

173.Related to this is a decline in the number of older students who are more likely to study part-time. Professor Madeleine Atkins told us that “the numbers that have declined are those over 25 years old—the more mature students”.191 Since 2012/13 under-20-year-old full-time students have risen by 11 per cent; part-time students over 30 have fallen by 41 per cent.192

Figure 6: Difference in student enrolments by age and mode of study between 2012/13 and 2016/17 (higher education providers in England only)

Bar chart showing percentage change in student enrolements from 2012/13 to 2016/17

Source: Higher Education Statistics Authority, HE student enrolments by personal characteristics, 2012/13 to 2016/17: [accessed 10 May 2018]

Sub-degree provision

174.The decline in part-time and older learners hit sub-degree provision particularly starkly across a range of providers. Research by Professor Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy at Birkbeck University, outlined in Table 6, reveals the drop in part-time learners seeking qualifications below degree level.

175.Overall sub-degrees dropped from 162,000 to 70,000. A substantial proportion of this was from the Open University where sub-degrees declined by 88 per cent, from 41,000 to only 5,000.

Table 6: Part-time undergraduate entrants domiciled in England by qualification type, 2010 and 2015





Percentage decrease

Open University


















FE College









Russell Group


















Soucre: Written evidence from Professor Clare Callendar (HFV0113)

Part-time further education

176.Study by part-time and adult learners in further education has also declined. Professor Sir Alan Tuckett estimated that “from the moment the skills strategy was adopted in 2003, we have seen a massive decline in numbers. About 2 million people have gone in 15 years in two great chunks.”193 Figure 7 shows the decline in numbers since 2011/12 across each age range.194

Figure 7: Further education participation by age, 2011/12 to 2016/17 [England only]

Line graph showing numbers of students and age from 2011/12 to 2016/17

Source: Department for Education, FE data library: further education and skills: FE and skills participation demographic tool for 2016 to 2017; FE and skills participation: all ages demographic summary 2015/16,; FE and skills by geography and equality and diversity: participation 2002/03 to 2014/15:

Workplace learning

177.Some witnesses commented on the declining role of employers and workplace learning in adult education. The TUC was among those who highlighted that the UK lags behind the European average for employer investment in vocational training: “the UK is half the EU average and investment in training and learning per UK employee fell by 13.6 per cent per employee in real-terms between 2007 and 2015.”195

178.Professor Claire Callender pointed out that in the field of higher education there had been a 54 per cent fall in the number of English domiciled entrants receiving employer funding.196 Giles Derrington of techUK suggested that only a quarter of employees participated in employer sponsored training.197

Reasons for decline

179.This decline has been caused by multiple funding and policy changes in the last 10 years. In higher education witnesses referred to two key policies which precipitated falls in part-time and mature numbers.

Equivalent or Lower Qualifications rule

180.The equivalent or lower qualification (ELQ) rule was introduced in 2009. This means that students cannot access state support—including tuition fee and maintenance loans—to study for a qualification that is equivalent or lower than one they already hold. Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck University, described the effect on his institution:

“Ninety per cent of those ELQ students, as they were called before it collapsed, were part-time. They were people doing lifelong learning and reorienting their careers. We have destroyed that market. In Birkbeck, before the ELQ rule, we probably had 50 per cent ELQ students. Now we have less than 5 per cent, because you have to have the full fee.”198

181.In 2015 and 2017 the Government relaxed the rules slightly to allow degree students to claim fees for a second degree in certain STEM subjects. Analysis by Professor Callendar suggests that that this change will only benefit a few hundred students.199

182.The impact of the equivalent or lower qualification restrictions was magnified by the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012 and the lack of available maintenance support for part-time students:200

183.As the demand for part-time courses fell, a decline in supply followed. Universities offered fewer part-time courses as their “income from part-time fell behind the income possible from full-time provision”.204 Professor Virgo QC told us “institutions with continuing education departments had reduced by two-thirds over the past 10 years.”205

Further education colleges

184.In further education there has been a similar combination of funding restrictions and consequent decline in student and course availability.

185.The decline in further education funding is set out above: Professor Sir Alan Tuckett observed that “FE overall has lost 25 per cent of its budget”. In addition, the complex structure of further education financing means that “there is no real possibility of funding transfers within the system”.206 Professor Sir Alan Tuckett went on to explain that this had affected the supply of courses offered by colleges:

“if you are running a college, in order to draw down the money, you must have a viable number of people wanting to study a particular thing to be able to mount a course to run it. If smaller and smaller numbers of people are attracted to pay the fees, you reach a dysfunctional point at which you cannot spend the money. The rules we have established are not permissive enough.”207

186.One consequence of this is that the adult education budget is underspent due to the restrictions on its use. The Government estimate that this underspend will be £63 million in 2016/17.208

187.Part-time study and adult learning have declined dramatically. A decline linked to reforms which aimed to increase participation in higher education. This neglect of part-time and mature students is short sighted: flexible learning is important for mature students looking to learn new skills to adapt to changes in the labour market and working practices.

Encouraging and supporting flexible learning

188.Some of the barriers faced by those seeking to study part-time or later in life relate to the availability of financial support. We make recommendations to address these issues in Chapter 9. But financial concerns are not the only impediment to a flexible, life-long education system. There are other measures which could improve the availability, accessibility and attractiveness of flexible learning.

189.First, co-operation and flexibility across providers and sectors. Students may not always progress straight through the education system so “provision needs to provide the flexibility that enables changes in direction as well as linear progression”.209 The Institute for Adult Learning stated this would require “greater co-operation between education providers across the system and also closer interaction with local employers”.210 Peter Horrocks CBE stated that the incentives for providers should be adapted to allow for this:

“If a student happens to leave Nottingham University, that is the failure of that student in a Nottingham context. If they then come to the Open University and succeed, that is a success for the Open University. There should be an incentive to show that both institutions have shared in that respective success.”211

190.Co-operation between providers and employers is also necessary. Professor Sir Keith Burnett explained that in Sheffield a lot of the SMEs were looking how to increase their employees’ skills: “They are very interested in doing things part-time and online, and that is what we are focusing on in terms of that provision.”212

191.Second, putting in place a system to ensure that students are credited for study they have undertaken. Professor Vignoles described “a universal accreditation system” which would “enable people to move not only from something that currently looks like an FE offer into an HE offer but between HE institutions.” This would help:

“people taking time out, coming back in and being more flexible with their learning. You cannot do that unless you have some system that accredits learning that has already happened [ … ] and then come in at a higher level to a second institution. At the moment, many students, including at our own institution, would have to start at the bottom again.”213

192.Giles Derrington told us that from a business perspective said often one university cannot provide all the necessary skills. He also pointed out that this would help students who developed different specialist interests during their course.214 Matt Houlihan said that he would “love to see [ … ] industry-standard and industry-led qualifications [ … ] recognised as part of wider qualifications such as degrees.”215 Professor Sir Alan Tuckett saw benefits in particular for part-time learners from “robust credit accumulation and recognition systems” which would enable them to “progress through the system more effectively.”216

193.Finally, encouraging different types of course provision, such as:

(a)Online learning. Russ Shaw, investor and founder of Tech London Advocates, argued that for many older learners “online initiatives, where they can find an hour here and a couple of hours there and dial into the internet to get their learning, will be the way to go.”217 Free education is available through Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).218 Professor Keep suggested “the future is blended learning”, combining online learning with face-to-face teaching.219

(b)Accelerated courses. Professor Stirling CBE suggested that a three-year degree with extended holidays were not necessarily as attractive to older learners as “shorter, more intensive degree courses”.220 Whilst these are offered by some institutions,221 research-intensive universities considered that they were “incompatible” with the need to do both teaching and research.222

194.Flexible learning is one method to increase higher education qualifications. It needs to be supported and encouraged by:

(a) higher and further education institutions working closely with each other and with employers; and

(b)providers adopting innovative methods of study, such as online learning and shorter courses.

195.But this alone will not be enough. Flexible learning must be backed by a robust, properly enforced credit-based system (where, for example credits accrued studying a Level 4 qualification would count towards—and reduce the cost of—a full degree). This requires regulatory reform and should be a priority for the new higher education regulator.

196.The recommendations for reform to tuition fees and maintenance support in Chapters 8 and 9 must apply to all part-time and flexible learners. The impact of these changes for students is summarised at the front of this report.

174 Q 146 (Professor Sir Alan Tuckett)

175 Q 1 (Lord Willetts)

177 Ibid.

178 Q 61 (Sir Antony Seldon)

179 Q 79 (Professor Graham Virgo QC)

180 Department of Education, Accelerated Degrees: widening student choice in Higher Education, (December 2017): (accessed 23 May 2018)

181 Written evidence from GuildHE (HFV0063)

182 Written evidence from the CBI (HFV0089)

183 Q 67 (Professor David Latchman CBE)

184 Q 45 (Professor Madeleine Atkins)

185 Written evidence from Universities UK (HFV0029)

186 Q 153 (Professor Ewart Keep); see also written evidence from the Association of Colleges (HFV0070).

187 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Building Our Industrial Strategy (January 2017): [accessed 11 May 2018]

189 Department for Education, Further education: flexible learning fund (October 2017): [Accessed 7 May 2018]

190 Written evidence from London South Bank University (HFV0014), 45 (Professor Madeleine Atkins)

191 Q 45 (Professor Madeleine Atkins)

192 2012/13 is the earliest that data are available from the HESA.

193 Q 146 (Professor Sir Alan Tuckett)

194 The Department for Education publishes data for further education participation by age from 2002 onwards. The department highlights that figures earlier that 2011/12 are not directly comparable due to changes in the method of collection and definitions. Department for Education, FE data library: further education and skills, FE and skills by geography and equality and diversity: participation 2002/03 to 2014/15: The Department for Education, FE and skills participation by geography learner demographics (April 2016): [accessed 20 May 2018]

195 Written evidence from the TUC (HFV0082)

196 Written evidence from Professor Callendar (HFV0103)

197 Q 118 (Giles Derrington); CPID, From ‘inadequate to ‘outstanding’: making the UK’s skills system world class (April 2017): [accessed 12 May 2018]

198 Q 65 (Professor David Latchman CBE)

199 Written evidence from Professor Claire Callendar (HFV0113) Professor Callendar noted that the change had not been included in guidance sent to students. She estimates that 585 students would be able to take advantage of the 2017 changes. The Sutton Trust, The Lost Part-Timers, (March 2018):[accessed 10 May 2018]

200 This will change in 2018/19 when maintenance support will be available, see Chapter 9.

201 Q 20 (Martin Lewis OBE)

202 Written evidence from London South Bank University (HFV0014); Q 65 (Professor David Latchman CBE). However, Professor Madeleine Atkins from HEFCE stated that the evidence was not clear on this point (Q 45).

203 Written evidence from London South Bank University (HFV0014); written evidence from Professor Claire Callendar (HFV0103)

204 Written evidence from Professor Claire Callendar (HFV0103)

205 Q 67 (Professor Graham Virgo QC)

206 146 (Professor Sir Alan Tuckett)

207 Ibid.

208 Written answer by Rt Hon Anne Milton MP (14  February 2018) 127048

209 Written evidence from Middlesex University (HFV0066) and written evidence from University Alliance (HFV0080)

210 Written evidence from the Institute for Adult Learning (HFV0087)

211 Q 66 (Peter Horrocks CBE). Student dropout rates are measured by the Teaching Excellence Framework and impact on ranking under that system. At the time of his evidence Mr Horrocks was Vice-Chancellor of the Open University.

212 Q 67 (Professor Sir Keith Burnett)

213 Q 88 (Professor Anna Vignoles); see also Q 108 (Professor Sir Alan Tuckett), 66 (Peter Horrocks CBE).

214 Q 118 (Giles Derrington)

215 Q 119 (Matt Houlihan)

216 Written evidence from Professor Sir Alan Tuckett (HFV0081)

217 118 (Russ Shaw)

218 The Houses of Parliament has produced three such courses (and co-created a fourth with Royal Holloway University). As of April 2018, since the launch of the first course in November 2016, 38,000 people have joined the courses and 22,000 have gone onto view at least one element at:

219 Q 149 (Professor Ewart Keep)

220 Q 76 (Professor James Stirling CBE)

221 For example, the University of Buckingham.

222 Q 79 (Professor Graham Virgo QC)

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