Sunday, October 25, 2015

The invisible campus - part-time online students

parallel shadows by Hamed Parham, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by Hamed Parham

If you look at most university websites you get the clear impression that their target group is between the ages of 18 and 23. That of course is the traditional target group but is far from reality at many institutions as the demand for higher education among the population over 23 grows rapidly. Many universities have been working with extension programmes and professional development for many years but still there are seldom photos of older students studying at home or in the workplace. Somehow the traditional university profile is the preferred one and the one most institutions identify most closely with. The younger students are of course the ones who fill the campus and use the often expensive and impressive buildings and classrooms. Furthermore they commit themselves to at least three years of full-time on campus studies which also forms the basis of the university's funding. Basically campus degree programmes and research are what the institutions are designed for. Everything else is an optional extra (though I'm fully aware there are glowing exceptions, but all too few).

Despite an increasing worldwide demand for more part-time online courses those are the ones being cut as governments and institutions economize and the result in many countries is that institutions are focusing on the supposed core business of campus degrees. An article in The Conversation called Part-time students feel squeezed out by universities obsessed with teenagers, spotlights the situation in England where the number of part-time students almost halved between 2010 and 2014. One reason for this is the sharp increase in fees that have been particularly steep for the part-time segment but the trend is also evident in many other countries such as here in Sweden. A recent report (in Swedish) by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees showed a significant downturn in part-time courses for professional development and called for a change in government policy. It feels like this potentially major sector for higher education is simply not being prioritised.

The problem is that there is often no clear strategy for this form of higher education and it is provided to the extent each institution feels is justified. It is an optional extra that doesn't make any impact on rankings or funding and therefore is always vulnerable when funding is low. This category of students is radically different to traditional students: studying part-time but often combining studies with full-time work, family and other commitments with no option of moving to a university campus. They generally don't identify themselves as students at all and have seldom any connection to student organisations. This in turn means that their views are not voiced when elected student representatives meet with faculty and administration. This means that part-time students are largely invisible and according the the article in The Conversation they feel increasingly marginalised.

This is an extremely important sector for higher education that deserves more attention. These students need short, flexible courses, mostly online, to enhance their career opportunities or enable them to apply for new jobs or change career. This market is more interested in sub-degree credentials rather than full-blown 3-4 year degrees and there is a growing interest in varieties of competence-based degrees, nano-degrees, badges and other forms of recognition.

Part-time higher education has a crucial role to play in social mobility. Opportunities to study part-time are at the forefront of widening access to the most disadvantaged adults, those vulnerable non-traditional students attempting a tentative first step into higher education. Part-time study has a positive affect on the economy, with mature students (the vast majority of whom are in full-time employment) seeking better careers in a global economy.

This niche has enormous potential but sadly there are few incentives for universities to focus on it. National strategies and funding are needed as well as ways of recognising and rewarding institutions that succeed. We need more institutions who see part-time, online study as their core business rather than a little sideline.

If the part-time sector is not to be inadvertently left to wither away, politicians need to create incentives for universities and colleges to prioritise part-time higher education as an attractive choice to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged students.

The alternative is that if higher education cannot meet the demand then someone else will.


  1. Very interesting, Alastair. We see the same priorities at our public universities in Norway. You conclude with "The alternative is that if higher education cannot meet the demand then someone else will." You are right, and we have already this alternative in private universities. BI is the best example, providing lots of part-time studies for 30-60 years old students, online or on campus. But this is not for free, we have to pay, like 70 000 NOK for 30 ects. When the studies are relevant and very useful for the career, people pay, or their employer pays. In Sweden you hold on to the principle of free education? No private universities offering part-time studies. based on fees?

  2. That's why the union organisation TCO that I mention in the post are worried. No-one is really addressing this issue at present and universities have been urged in recent years to focus on "core business".

  3. At the last EDEN conference there was an undertone throughout that this concentration on 3-4 year degree programs, with a corresponding reduction in shorter courses, was making our work as teachers much less inspiring.
    The "mature" students on these shorter professional courses provide us with a window into the latest professional developments, both practical and theoretical. In comparison with younger student groups they are also a more challenging and interesting group to work with, because they are much less likely to passively accept what we teach them.
    Unfortunately I think will trend will continue unless groups such as TCO and groups such as the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees federations protest more vociferously than they are doing at present.

  4. Indeed Keith. I'm worried we're missing a vital sector for higher education.