22 SES 05 A, Paper Session
This paper examines part-time flexible (PTF) Higher Education (HE) policy in Ireland between 2012-18. Drawing on data from an empirical study examining policy makers and student’s perspectives of PTF, findings indicated: policy was poorly conceptualized, the development of PTF Irish HE was linked to reform of HE structures and funding. Instead of a holistic approach to policy temporary initiatives aimed at increasing supply linked to employability was prioritised. Findings showed the retention and integration of PTF students within HE was neglected.
In Ireland PTF HE was not a priority for successive governments, instead policy makers focused their attention on increasing the numbers of school leavers accessing HE (OECD 2004). PTF HE was embedded in widening participation (WP) strategies however despite improvements in diversity across HE there was limited growth in the numbers of PTF students. PTF was under-researched, under-resourced and undervalued (Callender 2011, Byrne et al, 2016, Swain & Hammond 2011). There were structural inequities dividing full-time from part-time HE, PTF students were unable to access grants and paid fees (Daly 2015). Furthermore, PTF students were not counted in annual returns to the HEA or included in the recurrent grant allocation model (the government funded recurrent grant for HEIs) until recent years. Data on retention of PTF students was not recorded by the HEA.
Following the banking crisis of 2008 policy makers turned their attention to PTF HE in an effort to address economic recovery and competitiveness. Coinciding with a period of austerity and reduced State funding for HE, a period of reform was signaled as government agencies and departments launched the national strategy for HE (DES 2011, Hazelkorn 2014).
Employability, competitiveness and economic instrumentalism have shaped development in HE policy (Loxley et al 2014). The alignment of PTF HE specifically with employment and work-based learning agendas both regionally and nationally, was a feature within public policy initiatives. During the economic downturn the government introduced the Labour Activation Scheme ‘Springboard’ to support upskilling and reskilling in order to drive economic recovery. Springboard and its successor Springboard+ offered free places on PTF HE programmes that were linked to employability. The setting up of regional skills boards, the promotion of the apprenticeship scheme, the TU Act (2018) and new Human Capital Initiative (HCI) aimed to support the development of links between HEIs and industry.
Arguably the future development of PTF HE in Ireland is bound up with a reform of funding and changes to tuition fees in particular. In Irish HE students contribute to tuition fees, however full -time undergraduate students are eligible to access a free fees scheme and can apply for student grants. Part-time flexible students are required to pay fees and cannot access grants. Similarly, in the UK changes in funding led to the catastrophic decline in part-time student’s participation in HE, the reduction in numbers was linked to a rise in tuition fees, and a lack of supports to facilitate older student’s participation in HE (Callender 2018, Hillman 2015). In the UK, falling undergraduate part-time student numbers has been overshadowed by what Butcher describes as a 'political infatuation with the employability discourse around advanced skills for adults' the author notes that inclusion of adults within part-time HE failed to attract the attention of policymakers (Butcher 2020).
PTF students are not a homogenous cohort, analysis of the student profile indicates a range of ages, social and ethnic groups, however the majority are older, working and have caring responsibilities (Darmody & Fleming 2009). For many PTF students participating in FT HE is not an option and PTF routes is the preferred choice.
This paper draws on data arising from a qualitative case study involving policymakers and students. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken between 2015-18. This paper reports on findings from two groups: policy-makers (n=9), and students (n=63). The research sits within an interpretivist paradigm. Tinto’s (1993) theory of integration (drawing on his notion of student retention and departure) was adopted; this also provided a framework for the analysis of the data generated. Related ideas of belonging and theories of engagement influenced the methodology and informed interviews (Zepke & Leach, 2010, Thomas 2012, Kember 2001). A non-probability sampling approach was employed in the selection of policymakers; it was purposive and strategic, each invited participant had input into the processes and strategies of policy formation. Participants included former and current employees within the; DES, HEA, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as well as individuals employed by organisations that lobby, and represent stakeholders; such as employers and teacher unions. Interviews were semi-structured with questions and prompt used as guides. Individual face to face interviews was in-depth and lasted approximately an hour. The interview questions covered the following areas: What drives or informs part-time-flexible policy? What theories and ideas underpin policy? What was the purpose of part-time within higher education policy and wider? What factors assist in the growth of part-time HE, What factors inhibit the development of part-time? The issue of funding and inequalities were also discussed. Irish HE is a binary system with Universities and Institutes of Technology. To capture a range of student perspectives HEIs were purposively selected to include; large, medium, and small HEIs located in the capital and regionally. Universities, IoTs, Independent and educational colleges were approached and six HEIs responded to the call out. Using non-probability methods, a sample of students from six HEIs participated. Individual interviews were preferable but not possible in every case, small group and two medium-sized group interviews were also undertaken. Students' anonymity and confidentiality were agreed upon. More women than men volunteered for an interview though several disciplines reflected a higher female cohort. Students across a wide range of; part-time, sub-degree, degree and post-graduate programmes participated. Flexible part-time programmes of; one, two, and four years featured. Interviews were face to face and focused on several topics including; motivation for a return to learning, managing workload, students sense of belonging, inclusion and integration within the HEI and factors shaping persistence.
In Ireland PTF HE has been under-developed due to limited interest and investment by policy-makers and successive governments. In the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2008 the status of PTF was enhanced however there was a lack of incentives to grow and integrate part-time within HEIs. Employability and the skills agenda remained at the forefront of targeted initiatives for PTF HE. In Ireland, changes to or reform of HE funding appeared remote. Policymakers who participated in the research agreed on the importance of increased public investment as a factor in delivering growth in student numbers, however there was no indicator of any change to policy. It appears unlikely that ‘parity’ between full-time and part-time will be enacted in terms of ‘free fees’ for all students. A senior policy officer in the Department of Education noted; ‘So, for example, it’s not the case no more than full-time students, that everybody needs assistance, no not every part-time student requires support from the state to engage in education. PO,1 Part-time students were motivated and committed to their studies. The selection of a HEI and programme involved a process of research and evaluation. However, PTF students who were older and working did not experience a sense of belonging or integration within the HEI. An undergraduate student explains the situation; ‘I feel it's all about just coming in, do your studies and you go home, do your assignments may be from home or local library or stuff like that’. IoT. UGM Students reported difficulties in accessing supports and facilities outside of day-time working hours. In the future, WP strategies may be amended offering target groups the option to participate in PTF HE. However, the issue of access to on-campus supports to facilitate transition, integration and retention of PTF cohorts within HE requires attention.
Byrne, D., Murray, C.(2017) An Independent Review to Identify the Supports and Barriers for Lone Parents in Accessing Higher Education and to Examine Measures to Increase Participation, Dublin, DES. accessed 6.1.2018, pdf. Butcher, J.(2020), Unheard; The voices of part-time adult learners, HEPI Report 124, Higher Education Policy Institute, Oxford, Callender, C. (2011) Widening participation, social justice, and injustice: part-time students in higher education in England, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 30:4, 469-487, Callender C. Thompson, J.(2018) The Lost part-timers the decline of part-time undergraduate higher education in England, Sutton Trust, Clancy, P. (2015) Irish Higher Education, A Comparative perspective, Dublin, IPA, Daly, M. (2015). Why should part-time students have to pay fees that full-timers do not? The Irish Times. http://www.ria.ie/News/Exclusion-of-part-time students-from-free-fees-sch. Accessed 30 November 2015 DES, (2011) National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, Report of the Strategy Group, government publications, Dublin, Fleming, T., Loxley, A., Finnegan, F., (2017) Access and Participation in Irish Higher Education, London, Palgrave MacMillan, Hazelkorn, E. (2014) Rebooting Irish Higher Education: policy challenges for challenging times, Studies in Higher Education, 39 (8) 1343 – 1354 HEA (2004) OECD IMHE-HEFCE Project on International Comparative Higher Education Financial Management and Governance, Hillman, N. ed (2015) It’s the finance stupid, the decline of part-time higher education and what to do about it, Higher Education Policy Institute, Oxford Swain, J. Hammond, C. (2011) The motivations and outcomes of studying for part-time mature students in higher education, International Journal of lifelong Education, Vol.30:5 591-612, Kember, D. Lee, K., Li N., (2001) Cultivating a sense of belonging in part-time students, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20:4, 326-341, Loxley, A., Seery A., Walsh, J. (2014) (eds) Higher Education in Ireland, Practices, Policies, and Possibilities, Palgrave Macmillan, London, Thomas, L. (2012) What Works? Student retention and success, Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change, final report from the What works? Student retention and success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, accessed 17.8.2016, pdf Tinto, V. (1993) Leaving College, Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, (2nd ed.) University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Walsh, J. (2014) ‘A contemporary history of Irish Higher Education, 1980-2011’, In, Loxley, A., Seery A., Walsh, J. (eds) Higher Education in Ireland, Practices, Policies, and Possibilities, Palgrave Macmillan, London, Zepke, N., Leach, L. (2010) Improving Student engagement: Ten proposals for action, Journal of Active Learning in Higher Education, 11 (3) 167-177
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