Jerry Gordon is a social worker with Brent social services who has just completed a part-time degree in art history at Birkbeck, University of London. In fact, he has had two careers running in parallel as an artist and as a social worker. And he is a devotee of lifelong learning.
At times, it has been a hand-to-mouth existence. He gave up social work for a while to pursue his interest in art. His annual pounds 900 tuition-fee bill was funded by his income from contracts with social-service departments to run art workshops. At one time, however, that work dried up. 'I went to Birkbeck and said that I would have to abandon the course because I couldn't pay the fees,' explains Gordon, 49. 'They said, 'Don't do that, we can get you a fee waiver'.'
And so Gordon was able to continue with his studies, paying for his living costs by claiming state benefits and tapping a student loan. Undeterred by the financial struggle, he has now signed up for a part-time Masters in history of art. Gordon is one of a growing number of mature part-time students in Britain. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that part-timers make up 41.7 per cent of the student population, and that numbers rose to a record 406,550 in 2003/4, the latest year for which figures are available.
So, the general public, the media and politicians may imagine the typical student to be a fresh-faced 18-year-old, but that is far from the truth. Students are almost as likely to be a decade or two older and taking a degree to improve their career prospects or to change jobs. Everyone agrees that that is a good thing. Opening up higher education to people through part-time study in the evenings is good for the economy, regional regeneration and social cohesion.
Why, then, are part-time students treated differently from their full- time colleagues? The issue has come to a head because of the new top-up fee regime that is being introduced in 2006. From the autumn of that year, full-timers will pay pounds 3,000 a year at most universities but will not have to pay a penny of that sum until they have graduated and are earning pounds 15,000.
Part-timers, however, will not be part of that system. They won't be able to defer payment of their fees and they won't be entitled to the same grants and loans. Many universities are saying that this is unfair. It could mean that institutions raising fees for part- timers to a rate equivalent to the new pounds 3,000 top-up fee will find their part-time student numbers falling.
If, however, they decide instead not to charge the pro-rata fee for part- time courses so as not to deter potential students, they will receive less fee income. The umbrella group for the new universities, Campaigning for Mainstream Universities (CMU), is sore about this on the grounds that its members are the institutions that take the most part-timers, thereby contributing more to widening access, improving employability and opening up more new opportunities to higher education than older universities. It is arguing strongly for part-time students to be able to defer payment of fees like full-timers.
But there are two 'old' universities that are overwhelmingly part- time and therefore particularly vulnerable to losing out from the treatment of part-timers. They are Birkbeck and the Open University. The OU has 100 per cent part-time students and Birkbeck 96 per cent. 'I am concerned about Birkbeck being left behind,' says Professor David Latchman, master of the college. 'And that part-time students are not going to get the benefits that they deserve even though they make up 40 per cent of student numbers. …