Colleges are outperforming universities in recruiting undergraduate students despite a "dramatic" drop in part-time learners, new figures reveal.
Although the number of part-time students taking degree-level qualifications in colleges and universities has almost halved since 2010, further education providers appear to be weathering the storm better than their counterparts in higher education.
Experts have expressed concern at the drop in popularity of part-time qualifications such as foundation degrees, higher national diplomas and higher national certificates, as outlined in a new report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). The decrease is largely attributed to funding cuts and higher tuition fees.
But whereas universities reported a 38 per cent drop in part-time student numbers between 2010-11 and 2012-13, colleges experienced a drop of just 15 per cent. The figures also suggest a significant migration from less prestigious universities to the FE sector during the period in which the tuition fees cap for undergraduates was raised to pound;9,000.
A separate Hefce report published last month reveals that the number of students starting degree courses at English colleges has risen by almost 57 per cent over the past three years. While universities with lower entry requirements saw recruitment of full-time UK and EU undergraduates drop by 12,000 since 2010, colleges recruited 10,000 more students in the same period.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said: "Colleges are working in a tough recruitment market, with many providing HE courses for the public sector and in towns that have been hit hardest by the recession. However, it is to their credit that they've proved to be resilient in the face of a stringent funding environment."
He said part-time enrolments in FE could be faring better than in HE because provision was "bespoke" and developed in partnership with local employers.
The recruitment of part-time students remains a significant concern in both sectors, however, with overall numbers falling by 46 per cent since 2010. In the current academic year, only 31 per cent of undergraduates are studying part-time, compared with 47 per cent in 2002-03.
The Hefce report argues that part-time study has "lost some of its appeal" for many students, citing concerns among prospective learners about rising unemployment levels and tuition fees. "The economic recession and its aftermath have made it harder for many students to finance part-time study," it says. "Changes to government policies have also had an impact."
The National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (Niace) has called for "urgent action" to combat the "dramatic" drop. "The decline in part-time study is bad news indeed for the economy and for adults who want to improve their career prospects," said David Hughes, the charity's chief executive and a member of Hefce's widening participation advisory committee.
"We need people in the labour market, as well as those entering it, to be able to improve their skills and knowledge through flexible learning opportunities. Employers are already experiencing shortages of skilled people across the economy."
Mr Hughes said that as the economy grew, skills shortages would increase, so action was needed. "There is a clear threat to the overall coherence of learning opportunities for adults, with the number of people learning at level 3 and 4 in further education also significantly lower than in recent years," he added.
The scenario facing FE colleges was somewhat mixed, however. Although 28 colleges reported a drop in their full-time HE student numbers between 2010-11 and 2013-14, 52 institutions said their numbers had increased, with 39 colleges reporting an rise of at least 20 per cent.
The report also highlights a "shift towards more courses being provided directly by further education colleges", rather than institutions teaming up with universities. In 2012-13, just 5 per cent of all part-time students were taught in colleges through a university franchise, down from 7 per cent in 2010-11. Conversely, the proportion of students taking completely collegerun courses rose from 5 to 7 per cent during the same period.