By Susan Stewart, Director, The Open University in Scotland

ACCORDING to the independent review of student financial support, commissioned by the Scottish Government and published last year, there are 236,000 part-time students across Scottish further and higher education. That’s slightly more than the 223,000 full-time students the review identified.

These 236,000 part-time students, whether at college or university and regardless of what they’re studying, aren’t currently eligible for financial support. The review was a chance to fix that. After all, it cited fairness, parity and clarity as its guiding principles – support should be based on a student’s needs, should be available across further and higher education, and should be easily understandable.

Imagine my surprise when it chose to exclude part-time students from its recommendations. Despite its central recommendation that all students should be entitled to a minimum income of £8,100 a year, what the review really meant was some students.

Nicola Sturgeon has said repeatedly that widening access to higher education is a priority, so it’s interesting to think about who part-time students are. People study part-time because they can’t study full-time – because they’ve got more going on in their lives.

My own institution provides part-time study across Scotland and offers some useful illustration. Seventeen per cent of our new students come from SIMD20 areas, Scotland’s most deprived communities. In Glasgow, that figure rises to 40 per cent. More than two-thirds earn less than £25,000 per year, even though nearly three-quarters are in work. Twenty-one per cent declare a disability and almost 20 per cent come to us with a college higher national qualification, while just under 20 per cent don’t actually have traditional university entrance qualifications. Of the 42 per cent studying STEM subjects, 47 per cent are female.

That is what wider access to higher education looks like. People who have found a way to study, often in spite of challenging circumstances, and even though they have other obligations like work and family.

Some of our students talk about an “earnings trap” – having left school and begun working, they find that, with rent to pay and children to look after, they can no longer afford to study full-time. They need to work to maintain their income. But that doesn’t mean part-time students are well off. In fact, they tend to be on lower, already stretched, incomes. That’s why they also need to be able to access financial support, alongside typically younger full-time students, who’ve entered university straight from school and who tend to have fewer outside responsibilities. Putting part-time students at a disadvantage based on the way they need to study doesn’t make sense and is not fair.

But it’s not just about fairness. It’s also an economic necessity. Demographic trends show us that, in a world of rapidly changing technology, we don’t have enough young people to fill the jobs we know are coming soon. Scotland is a small country and we need to take advantage of the talents of all of our people, which means they need to be able to re-skill and upskill in order to change jobs and careers throughout their lives – and for most people already in work, that means studying part-time.

The Scottish Government has announced that it will consult on how part-time students can be supported later in the year. This is a very welcome step. It will provide an opportunity to achieve the fairness, parity and clarity for all students that the mooted but didn’t deliver. It will be a chance to reaffirm our commitment to higher education for all, regardless of age or background, with a more inclusive approach to student support that really does support all students. Because, ultimately, we cannot widen access with a narrow focus.