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HEFCE pledges dedicated staffer to follow impact of reforms

The number of students taking part-time postgraduate courses in England has fallen by 27 per cent, or 25,000, between 2010-11 and 2012-13, a report released on 14 March says.

Part-time postgradate research student numbers fell by 7 per cent in the same period—to a total of around 4,000.

The data were released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in a report on the impact of the 2012 higher education reforms.

Vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK has been commissioned by universities minister David Willetts to review evidence on part-time study and make recommendations.

“We have been concerned for some time about recruitment to part-time courses,” says Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK. “It is particularly striking that enrolments to part-time courses have declined despite the recent extension of loans to part-time students. These figures show starkly that there is a serious issue, and we are determined to get to the bottom of it.”

In contrast to the fall in part-time postgrad research students, recruitment to full-time postgrad research degrees rose by 3 per cent between 2010-11 and 2012-13.

The broader trend is a 25 per cent growth in all types of postgraduate study from 2002-3 to 2010-11, just before fees rose in 2012.

“Today’s report…highlights some causes for concern: in particular, sharp drops in recruitment to part-time courses and a related decline in mature entrants,” says Alan Langlands, HEFCE’s chief executive. “HEFCE will continue to monitor these and other issues, taking action as necessary.”

To that end, the council has appointed a member of staff to establish an observatory, which will focus on producing further reports by monitoring government policies and funding reforms. The appointee, who will work with HEFCE colleagues such as policy advisers and statisticians, has a research background and experience in higher education. They will be named in an announcement “in the next month or so”, said a HEFCE spokesman.

Average postgraduate fees are lower than those for undergraduate degrees, a situation that HEFCE hints in the report may not last for long. “Some institutions believe that it may be difficult to keep fee levels for postgraduate courses lower than those for undergraduate courses,” it says.