The Association of Colleges and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) are backing research into the delivery of part-time higher education courses in FE colleges.

The £246,000 programme will aim to identify barriers in recruitment to part-time degree level courses in colleges, which has been declining for the past six years. It fell nearly 40 per cent in the 2012/13 academic year.

It will also identify barriers to the expansion of higher education in colleges and make recommendations on how colleges can be enabled and supported to develop their higher education offering.

Nick Davy, the association’s higher education manager, said: “This is a significant research programme and will be crucial to widening our understanding of the underlying causes for the recent decline in part-time higher education numbers, improve colleges’ market intelligence, and inform future policymaking to expand college higher education and support strategic objectives, such as achieving degree-awarding powers.”

A statement from the association suggested that the decline could be due to the introduction and limited promotion of 24+ loans, reduced employer training budgets and the uneven spread of part-time courses.

It also suggested that younger students might have poor regard for this form of study.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: “This is an important study that will help us in our drive to create a more diverse sector with more opportunities for part-time or accelerated courses, distance learning and higher level vocational study.

“FE students studying higher level qualifications are more likely than university students to be over 25, part-time and come from areas with low rates of participation in higher education.

“So it is vital that we understand what more can be done to get FE colleges to increase their higher education offer.”

Mr Davy agreed, saying: “Higher education is a core priority for many of our member colleges, the majority of which provide undergraduate and postgraduate level courses.

“The college higher education offer is distinctive in that it offers cost-effective courses close to home and has a strong track record in widening participation to people from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have thought university was for them.”

The two-year project will be carried out by the centre for widening participation policy studies at the University of East London Continuum, which has expertise in higher vocational education.

Professor John Storan, director of Continuum, said: “This research will address both the reasons for the downturn in part-time higher education college participation and examine the factors which impact on the expansion of higher education capacity within colleges.”