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Where are all the part-time students?

Principal Advisor, Productivity Commission
19 December 2019

You’d think that with low unemployment and ever-improving technology for distance education, the proportion of tertiary students studying part-time would be on the rise. But it’s not.

There’s a puzzle here that may help to reveal some of the challenges our tertiary education system faces in meeting the skills needs of New Zealand’s workforce.

The number of people studying at tertiary education providers has been falling for a while. This reflects falling unemployment rates (especially for people aged 18-24) and demographic trends.

Total enrolments are forecast to stay pretty flat for the next five years at least.

Tertiary student numbers NZQF level 3 and above
(headcount and equivalent full-time student enrolments)

Tertiary student numbersSource: Ministry of Education            Notes: Data excludes international students

The proportion of students studying part-time has flatlined (or worse, fallen as fast as those of full-time students). The overall proportion of part-timers in programmes at level 3 and above on the New Zealand qualifications framework slid from 34% of students in 2009 to 28% in 2018. Graduate certificates and diplomas are the only type of qualification where part-timers’ share has increased, but these account for only 2.5% of all tertiary students.

Proportion of part-time students by level and type of qualification 2009-2018

Proportion of part time students by level and type of qualification 2009 2018Source: Ministry of Education: provider based enrolments, table ENR.39           Notes: This data excludes international students.

There’s a bunch of reasons why we should expect to see more part-time students...

On the demand side, people have more employment options, raising the opportunity cost of full-time study. If people were anticipating an increasing threat to their current jobs from technological change, perhaps they’d look to upskill and retrain with some tertiary courses. If the claimed trend towards more flexible work arrangements were real, there would be more opportunity for people to mix work and study. Employers facing apparent skills shortages should be offering their workers more opportunities and support for education and training – as a way to retain staff, and as a way to boost their productivity.

On the education supply side, providers faced with declining enrolments (and declining revenue) from full-time students should be seeking to recruit more part-timers to fill their empty places.

Advances in the quality of online learning technology should be making part time study a more attractive option for people and lower the price (there would be more competition and choice of offerings from tertiary providers).

There is, of course, another large group of “part-time students” out there: people participating in work-based education and training, some of which is recognized and funded by the government through the industry training system. There has been some recent growth in industry trainee numbers, but not enough to account for all the part-time students apparently missing from our universities, polytechics, wānanga and private training establishments. 

…so what explains the flatlining share of part-timers? 

New Zealand’s education policy settings may be part of the story.

The Productivity Commission’s 2017 New models of tertiary education report highlighted the extent to which funding rules, and regulations about programme design and delivery, constrain innovation in the tertiary education system and dampen incentives for providers to respond to learners’ changing needs. That diagnosis (although not all the Commission’s recommendations about what to do about it) received broad support. If we want a more flexible education system with more people engaging in lifelong learning, we need to change the rules of the game.  

Here are a few areas where a change in the rules should be considered:

Funding for students who want to study just a few courses, not a whole qualification.

To qualify for government tuition subsidies, students must enroll in a full qualification, even if they’re only interested in one or two courses. This limits providers’ ability and incentive to design bite-sized learning options for people who may already hold a qualification and a job but want to fill specific gaps in their knowledge and skills.

This rule could be relaxed to let providers claim government funding for people who enroll in a single course, if they already hold a qualification at the same level or higher.

Performance measures that focus on qualification completion rates

The education performance indicators (EPIs), that the Tertiary Education Commission uses to assess and allocate funding to tertiary providers, could be improved by measuring qualification completion rates only for students who do not already hold a qualification at the same level or higher than the courses they are taking.

Part-time students tend to have lower qualification completion rates. Providers’ EPIs are marked down if their students don’t graduate, even if they have completed and passed all the courses they wanted to do, or if they stopped studying to take up a good job offer.

For young people yet to enter the workforce, completing a qualification is important. Young students who complete their qualifications generally have higher employment rates and higher incomes than those who do not graduate.1 But there is less evidence that completing another whole qualification matters for mid-career students who already hold qualifications, and who want to pick up a few courses.

The EPIs have helped drive up completion rates, improving student outcomes and the cost-effectiveness of public tertiary education spending. There are still big challenges to reduce differences in completion rates for students of different ethnic groups. But it is not clear how high overall completion rates can or should be driven before risking some undesirable effects, such as discouraging providers from recruiting older and part-time students who have lower and slower completion rates.

Rules for micro-credentials have opened up a bit, but are still fairly restrictive.

Amelia’s recent post noted the potential value of micro-credentials for creating a more flexible, skilled workforce. NZQA and the TEC have recently made changes that allow micro-credentials to be recognized on the New Zealand qualifications framework and receive public funding.

That is progress, but there’s still room to improve the rules for micro-credentials. For example:

  • NZQA should allow micro-credentials to be “stacked” into larger NZQF qualifications. The current rules preventing this aim to stop existing larger qualifications being broken up into less coherent bits - but these rules mean learners miss out on the potential value of combining valuable micro-credentials into more valuable sets.
  • The TEC should drop a rule that caps funding for micro-credentials at no more than 5% of a provider’s total education provision. This rule means funding can only go to large providers who offer micro-credentials as a sideline business. It prevents small specialised providers from entering the market.

The Government’s vocational education reforms could make part-time study more attractive

Opportunities for part-time students will also be a key test for success of the government’s reforms of vocational education and training. These reforms aim to improve consistency and mobility between provider-based and work-based education and training, and across the country. If these aims are realized, participation rates for part-time study should increase – although this may be difficult to measure if the reforms succeed in blurring the now too-sharp distinction between provider-based students and work-based trainees.

We’ll have quite a bit to say on this in our forthcoming draft report on Training New Zealand’s workforce. You’ll soon find this appearing on the Productivity Commission website, just in time to add it to your Christmas reading pile!

Notes
1. Ministry of Education’s Education Counts website has fact sheets, stats and research reports on graduate destinations and employment outcomes, here.

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