Flexible Learning: Part-Time Learners

Source: The Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Source: The Higher Education Academy (HEA)

This is the third in a short series of posts on the work undertaken by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on flexible learning.


The report on part-time learners and learning (McLinden, 2013) is the first in a short series of complementary reports from the HEA that go under the banner of “flexible pedagogies”. The reports presents, for the first time, the overarching research question that is underpinning the HEA’s flexible learning theme:

Why and to what extent might flexible pedagogies be promoted, and in what ways?

This report, and other reports in the series, frame and position its responses against the overarching research question and draws upon the three “main dimensions” of flexible learning that supports pace (e.g. accelerated and decelerated degrees), place (e.g. work-based learning and employer engagement), and mode of learning (e.g. technology-enhanced learning).

The report (McLinden, 2013) notes that recent government reforms (e.g. BIS, 2011) places the student experience at the very ‘heart’ of Higher Education with institutions expected to deliver a quality student experience, improving teaching, assessment and feedback, as well as preparing students for the world of work. It is against this backdrop that the report considers the changing role of part-time learners as the once-traditional division between full-time and part-time learners is becoming increasingly blurred with students looking to structure their study time around work and family commitments.

Defining ‘Part-Time Learners’

Like flexible learning, there is no single definition of part-time learners or part-time learning. However, a commonly used definition in the United Kingdom (UK) is provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and “includes students [who are] recorded as studying part-time, or studying full-time on courses lasting less than 24 weeks, on block release, or studying during the evenings only” (HESA, 2012).

However, the report recognises that notions of ‘full-time’ or ‘part-time’ will not be able to record the nuances of different study modes that exist across the sector (i.e. sandwich course).

Profiling ‘Part-Time Learners’

Drawing from a recent HEFCE report, this reports presents a profile of the part-time student population in England:

  • likely to be non-traditional learners and tend to be mature;
  • one in four students in undergraduate study have no qualifications above GCSE or equivalent (or no qualifications at all);
  • young students from disadvantaged backgrounds were twice as likely as the most advantaged young students to choose part-time study;
  • around two-thirds of part-time students have caring or family commitments;
  • reduction in part-time numbers will have a disproportionate effect on certain groups of students.

Flexible Learning Provision for ‘Part-Time Learners’

In the report’s concluding section, it suggests four main, yet intersecting, strategies to open up higher education opportunities to prospective students who would have ordinarily been prevented from studying by such barriers as family commitments or employment:

  • using digital technologies to deliver teaching online;
  • revising pedagogic practices;
  • providing flexibility in course scheduling / structures and professional experience (or placements);
  • ensuring more accepting and open attitudes to learner diversity.

On a positive note, the report suggested that the UK HE sector was becoming more responsive in “recognising and understanding the broader pedagogical needs relating to part-time study”.


BIS. (2011). Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System. London, England: Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/higher-education-white-paper-students-at-the-heart-of-the-system [Accessed 17.3.2015].

HESA. (2012). Definitions for Students and Qualifiers Statistics. Cheltenham, England: Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Available at: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/content/view/1902/#mode [Accessed 17.3.2015].

McLinden, M. (2013). Flexible Pedagogies: Part-Time Learners and Learning in Higher Education. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/flexible-pedagogies-part-time-learners-and-learning-higher-education [Accessed 17.3.2015].