The number of part-time students on degree-level courses in FE colleges has fallen by nearly 20 per cent, a "massive reduction" that follows the introduction of higher tuition fees, experts have warned.
Overall participation in higher education by part-time students fell by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2012, as annual fees were hiked to a maximum of pound;9,000 last September, according to figures released last week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).
The real figure for colleges may be even higher than the 20 per cent identified by Hefce, as this does not include places that are franchised from a university rather than directly funded.
The funding council has identified the collapse in numbers of part-time students as an issue that requires "immediate attention". "There has been a dramatic decline in the numbers of entrants to part-time courses over the past couple of years," the report said.
Hefce has announced plans to set up an "observatory" to monitor issues such as this one. It said that disadvantaged students are more than twice as likely to study part-time as the most advantaged students.
The sharp drop in part-time study has also contributed to a fall in mature student applications of more than 7 per cent.
In a survey last year, Hefce found that many colleges reported that mature students in particular were reluctant to take on student loans. Some may not be able to take on the subsidised loans if they are studying for a degree at the same level as one they already hold.
In total, across the HE sector, the number of part-time places fell by 105,000 in two years. "It's a massive reduction," said David Hughes, chief executive of adult education body Niace. He explained that one cause is that HE institutions are retreating from providing part-time courses in favour of easier to administer full-time provision, with the lack of availability contributing to the impression of a lack of demand.
Mr Hughes said the increase in the range of higher apprenticeships may offset the trend, but he called on the government to make part-time courses a priority to preserve access to learning. "The government needs to say this is really important so that universities and colleges take it seriously as part of their core mission," he said.
The figures were released as part of a report on the impact of the introduction of fees of up to pound;9,000, backed by loans that are only repayable on an income of more than pound;21,000. They also revealed that nearly one in four additional low-cost HE places allocated to colleges under the "core and margin" process went unused last year, a total of 2,700. In universities the wastage was even higher, with 4,000 unfilled places.
Colleges with the smallest allocations of places were the least likely to fill them, Hefce found. Those given 180 places or more managed to fill 80 per cent of their allocation, while all those with 50 per cent or more unfilled places had allocations of less than 75.
The result calls into question Hefce's decision to offer core and margin places to many colleges with very little prior experience of HE, including offering direct funding to sixth-form colleges for the first time.
Nick Davy, HE policy manager for the Association of Colleges, said that colleges had proposed that there was an opportunity to reallocate places during the year if they were not filled, but Hefce did not pursue the idea. "Rather than effectively losing those numbers, you'd be able to offer learners a place somewhere else," he said.
The figures also showed the continued decline of franchising, where universities offer some of their places to colleges that have no direct funding from Hefce. The number of franchised, full-time undergraduates fell by 15 per cent.
However, overall, the contribution of FE colleges to HE increased, with student numbers rising almost 6 per cent to nearly 50,000.