The bad news is that the number of part-time learners in HE is plummeting. The good news (for FE colleges) is that it’s a chance to develop more business, says David Hughes

Higher education does not usually command many column inches in FE Week. However,  it was concerning to see how little coverage there was across the media about last week’s report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England setting out some stark numbers, not least a 40 per cent reduction in part-time learners in HE since 2010. This means that 105,000 fewer adults are benefiting from higher-level learning this year.

It also confirms the fears that led us to publish a special Adults Learning Extra at the start of March in which senior people in further and higher education talked about the anticipated reduction and considered what could be done to address it.

Put simply, we are worried because this drop will result in fewer opportunities for adults to develop their talents and fill high-level jobs, which will have both an economic and social impact.

We know that participation and achievement in learning at all levels are unequal and that many people miss out on learning, despite their abilities.

Every year Adult Learners’ Week pays testimony to the long learning journeys people take from no qualifications to a degree.

This current reduction shows that this year there is even less hope for those who want to get into learning in higher education. The result is less social mobility and less social justice.

This is a hot issue in higher education, but all FE colleges should think about their response too, learning from the range and scale of what is already happening in colleges.

We know that participation and achievement in learning at all levels are unequal”

Outside the Open University, most part-time higher education learners want and need to learn locally so that their learning can fit in with their earning and family and caring commitments.

But many universities have stopped offering part-time study, something that, for me, represents an opening for others to fill. I do not believe there are 105,000 fewer people wanting to learn this year; in fact, I believe that there are more. It’s just they have not been offered the opportunity that will encourage them to take the plunge.

FE colleges are well-placed to offer those opportunities – and many already do. Counter-intuitively the introduction of advanced level learning loans for adults aged 24 and over will open up a market that the more creative colleges will no doubt mine.

Colleges should not overlook this area of potential growth. In most areas, Year 13 cohorts in schools will be getting smaller over the next few years (because of low birth rates in the 1990s and 2000s), and colleges are well-placed to offer both FE and higher education places part-time, flexibly and at a lower cost for adults as replacements for full-time young people.

It may be a demographic quirk, but this is not something for the short term. The need will grow as the economy gets back on its feet.

Colleges willing to expand or move into this market might also find their conversations with the emerging local enterprise partnerships a little easier too.

This is an opportunity for colleges to develop more business and to meet need. It is also an opportunity that has positive social and economic benefits and one that will go down well with employers, stakeholders and potential learners.

I shall watch the stampede with interest and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education will happily support in any way we can.

David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education  

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