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  6. 'Shoe-horned and side lined'?: Challenges for part-time learners in the new HE landscape

'Shoe-horned and side lined'?: Challenges for part-time learners in the new HE landscape

Project Aims

The Part-Time Now project project sought to identify and explore in detail the student experience of the range of barriers to part-time learning in HE across the four UK nations, and to expand the evidence base of what it feels like to be a part-time student in the new HE landscape. The Part-Time Now project was intended to provide detailed and deeper understanding of what it looks and feels like to be a part-time student. Outputs are planned to be suitably disseminated via a series of conference  presentations, seminars and academic articles. It is hoped that the findings will enable the HEA and policymakers to develop more informed responses to the needs of part-time students than current policies allow, which position part-time students as a marginal and homogeneous group.

Shoe-horned and Side-lined Report


This project project was designed to address six key objectives:
  • To make a substantial contribution to live and ongoing debates about part-time HE study across the UK.
  • To better understand the role part-time provision plays in addressing access to higher education and participation issues for different groups of non-traditional learners (who may or may not otherwise
  • participate in HE).
  • To deliver a more detailed understanding of the diversity of the part-time student body, of the challenges facing part time students, and a deeper understanding of the range of experiences, needs and identities of part-time students.
  • To deliver and analyse a UK-wide survey of part-time students.
  • To deliver a range of interviews (complemented by focus groups as appropriate) with part-time students from a wide range of backgrounds in order to more fully explore the personal motivations and experiences of individual part-time learners, the barriers they face to study, and how barriers are overcome.
  • To deliver a research report which articulates with specific national policies: for higher education; for parttime study, and for widening participation.


  • National Survey

  • Interviews

  • Analysis



Policy-makers need to incentivise universities and colleges to prioritise part-time higher education as an attractive choice, offered in a diversity of modes, with a broad subject spread to provide an equitable offer for what are likely to be the most disadvantaged students, those with the poorest access to HE opportunity. Currently, the demand for full-time study is more robust, the fees are higher, and part-time provision is not perceived as enhancing HEIs’ status or esteem. Part-time students can be seen as less important by senior managers and the business model around part-time student finance is volatile and complex. As one interviewee noted: "There is less opportunity to go and study part-time – what if they want to go and there is only full-time?"

Institutions need to be far more aware of the flexibilities that part-time students need, and to adopt a customer focus to ensure engagement with learners who currently feel isolated and disengaged from a "one-size-fits-all" student community. They also need to avoid falling into the trap of addressing part-timers the same way: "Whether you’re distance learning or in college, you get a message stating "come into campus and register your ID immediately"." (8). Institutions need to be more open to the diversity that part-time students bring to HE – both celebrating their value to the culture of an HEI and acknowledging their needs. If the responsibility for developing a part-time culture sat in a PVC’s brief, and progress against targets was reported annually this could help part-time students acknowledge the importance of their learner identity – which might in turn remind policy-makers of their significance in the sector.

The sector needs to see the benefits of educating local part-time adult students who could provide a platform for a range of radical community education partnerships (which might be good business given the impending drop in 18-year-olds in the UK), and who bring with them professional and personal skills and characteristics which could benefit the academy and re-orientate traditional pedagogies. But for this to work, the sector requires an understanding that students taking a part-time route to a HE qualification cannot be assumed to have the same learning priorities as a full-time student – and they may bring more to the learning experience in terms of "professional capital" than is currently recognised

Having completed this project, we are aware of three fertile areas for further research. First, we acknowledge this study left unexplored the particular experiences of part-time HE students from a black or minority ethnic (BME) background. This is an omission in our understanding of a crucial widening participation demographic, and the specific barriers faced in terms of access to part-time study, which needs to be addressed.

Second, we are aware, in any discussion of the barriers faced by part-time students, of the need to avoid lapsing unconsciously into a deficit model. To this end, research to explore the relative achievements of part-time learners (especially in the context of metrics around added value) is pressing, as is the need to clarify what a positive effect part-time/mature learners can have on the educational culture of groups of younger full-time learners (wisdom, resilience, life skills?). Crucially, institutions need to develop a meaningful partnership with their part-time learners, in which negotiation and dialogue (seemingly so much easier with full-time students) can be embedded in an effort to meet part-timers’ needs.

Third, we are also aware of a knowledge gap around student perceptions of part-time informal study (in contrast to the formal, accredited HE which framed this project). This could contribute to the development of a more inclusive, and a more effective part-time student identity and group culture.

Project Contacts

Principal Investigator: Dr John Butcher, Associate Director, (Curriculum and Access),

Project Manager: Wendy Fowle, Senior Manager, Research and Evaluation (Widening Access and Success),