The experiences of part-time social science students: A report for the Head of Social Sciences, The Higher Education Academy

Project: Project at a former HEI

Project Details


This report identifies areas of research and academic development work to support university staff to teach part-time social science students. These suggestions are based upon two forms of empirical evidence. First an analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data explores what part-time students studied, where they studied and the available demographic details regarding part-time social science students between 2008/9 and 2010/11(HESA, 2010, 2011, 2012). The disciplines included in this data are those covered by the current HEA Social Science cluster which include Anthropology, Business and Management; Economics; Education; Finance and Accounting; Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism; Law; Marketing; Politics; Islamic Studies, Sociology; and, Social Work and Social Policy(HEA, 2012). The second set of empirical data includes part-time students’ experiences as portrayed in (31) qualitative interviews and in a small (34 no.) survey. Twenty-three interviews were conducted for this report, 4 interviews were conducted as part of a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council ‘Pedagogic Quality and Inequality in University First Degrees’ ([Grant Number: RES-062-23-1438) (PEQ, 2012) 4 interviews were conducted by Rachel Frampton (Frampton, 2009) for a project exploring students’ experiences of part-time degrees taught in Higher Education partner colleges.

Key findings

1) Part-time social science students constitute a high proportion all of social science students in the UK. Recent statistics indicate that: undergraduate courses below degree level are mainly taught part-time; 42% (FPE’s) of taught postgraduate students are part-time; and, around a third of social science research degrees are studied for part-time. However, even in first degrees where the percentage of part-time students is low compared to full-time students, the number of students is still significant.
2) A greater proportion (62% FPE) of part-time social science students are taught in post-1992 universities. In the post-1992 universities the number of part-time students dropped in 2010\11 whilst numbers in all other universities rose. Part-time students are significant to increasing diversity in higher education therefore there is a risk of increasing inequality if numbers do drop. It is too early to tell what impact the new funding changes that are to be introduced in 2013\14 will have on part-time student numbers.
3) Significantly fewer part-time students study core social science disciplines compared to vocationally orientated programmes, such as education, law or business and management. However, it is difficult to establish how much sociology, social policy, politics and economics etc. are integrated into the different programmes that part-time students study.
4) Understanding what social science disciplines are integrated into vocational and empirically focused programmes for part-time students could be important to a wider recognition of the value and influence of social science disciplines such as politics, sociology, social politics etc.. In addition, having a better overview of the role of different types of social science knowledge in different courses would be useful for planning academic development activities that target appropriate staff groups and allow for more effective sharing of knowledge and practices.
5) An analysis of data from participants in qualitative interviews (31) demonstrated the positive value of social science knowledge to the personal transformation and career development of part-time students. Part-time students reported that the critical disciplinary knowledge they were learning was central to their achieving positive outcomes from their programmes.
6) Part-time students are at wider variety of life and career stages which differently orientate students to their studies and the material they study. This affects the way students engage with their education. Understanding the range of orientations of part-time students to their studies is important for supporting their learning.
7) The academic development activities required to support those teaching part-time students need to take into account the diverse:
a) Levels of social science qualifications studied for part-time (e.g. from Foundation to PhD);
b) Disciplines and subjects studied part-time;
c) Educational and work experiences of students;
d) Ways that provision for part-time students is organised;
e) Identities, life-events and backgrounds associated with part-time students
f) Physical teaching contexts (e.g. universities, colleges, workplaces etc.)
8) The existing literature relating to the teaching of part-time social science students is diffusely spread across the following areas and probably further: pedagogical research; teaching diverse students; adult education; professional education (health, education, social work, law and so forth); research into supervising and supporting research degrees; taught postgraduate degrees; research into vocational education; lifelong learning; and, studies of part-time students experiences and needs.
9) Much academic development that is relevant to teaching students from diverse backgrounds is also relevant to teaching part-time students. The students in this study had some things in common with mature students studying on full-time undergraduate programmes.
10) There is a high degree of similarity between part-time and full-time students understanding conceptions of good teaching and significant overlap in the things they need to support their learning. However, it is important that the needs of part-time students and those teaching them are specifically and overtly addressed in generic staff development activities because the ways of achieving the same outcomes may differ between full and part-time students.
11) The small study for this report found that the part-time students were very positive about the teaching they were receiving but the following activities have been identified as those which could benefit from some further support:
a) High quality discussion: this happens when students are well prepared and there are good relationships between students and tutors create appropriate activities.
b) Useful and developmental feedback: this is particularly important to part-time students who often feel they lack other opportunities to gain both positive (to help build a confident student identity) and critical (to develop their skills) feedback.
c) Developing positive part-time student identities: this is something students find difficult to generate for themselves.
d) Appropriate and accessible support for skills development: participants indicated that study skills support was often inaccessible to them because of inconvenient timing and\or due to a lack of appreciation by tutors as to how much support was needed. This applies to students at all levels as many have not studied for a long time.
e) Developing supportive relationships between students: where these did develop (usually between part-time students on part-time programmes) students valued these relationships and they were important to their studies. However, part-time students can be isolated in courses where they are mixed in with full-time students or if the organisation of the course and their work commitments mean that they lack time outside of scheduled teaching.
f) Relevant assignments: part-time students who are working in the field they are studying in particularly value and gain from assignments which are relevant to their workplaces. This also helps with their finding time to complete assignments.
g) Programmes and university services which have been organised with part-time students in mind. Participants would have liked tutors and universities to incorporate a better understanding of the conditions and constraints which impinge on their academic work and engagement into their practices.
Short title£7000
StatusNot started


  • Part-time Social Science Students
  • HEA Report