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  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • Data sources and definition of the cohort
  • Structure of the report
  • Trends in student numbers
  • First degree completion rates
  • Annex A Cohort definitions
  • Annex B Tables to show the effect of exclusions from an original population, for the years 1996-97 through to 2006-07
  • Annex C Analysis to inform a split by intensity of study
  • Annex D Tables to show first degree completion rates by programme and student attributes for low intensity entrants
  • Annex E Tables to compare the 1996-97 and 2000-01 cohorts
  • Annex F List of abbreviations

Executive summary


1.   This report examines the rates of completion for a cohort of students attending UK higher education institutions (HEIs) who began a first degree by following a part-time programme of study in academic year 1996-97. A later starting cohort is also examined. It is intended to inform discussion about the rate of part-time degree completion.

Key points

Capturing the diversity of part-time study

2.   When considering the results reported here, it is important to note that the diversity of, and flexibility found in, part-time provision make the data notoriously difficult to capture accurately and interpret.

3.   Identifying the true study intentions of a part-time student is one particular difficulty: whether a student intends to complete a module or modules for institutional credit as opposed to a first degree. It is likely that a number of the cohort examined in this study never intended to complete a first degree and their presence will have a detrimental effect on rates of first degree completion. Among those entrants actually intending to gain a first degree, completion rates are likely to be higher than those reported although it is not possible to estimate the size of this effect.

4.   The cohort for non-Open University institutions only includes those reported as aiming for a first degree, whereas the Open University cohort also includes those reported as studying for institutional credits. This is a result of difficulties with separating first degree and other undergraduate students within the Open University’s statistical data in earlier years.

Number of entrants

5.   The number of entrants to part-time first degree programmes at UK HEIs (other than the Open University) has been in decline since 2002-03. Academic year 2006-07 saw the largest drop in numbers yet, around 1,600 fewer than in the previous year. In this year around 12,000 part-time students commenced a first degree course.

6.   Relatively steady growth has been observed in the number of entrants to part-time institutional credit and first degree programmes at the Open University since 2002-03. This number reached a peak of almost 50,000 in 2006-07, with around half of entrants studying for a first degree and half for institutional credits.

Completion rates

7.   First degree completion rates vary substantially by a student’s intensity of study in the first year of their programme. Part-time students became eligible to receive financial support when they studied at or above 50 per cent of the intensity of a full-time student. It might therefore be reasonable to assume that completion rates would differ among students according to this split in intensity of study. Analysis has shown that the split actually occurs at 30 per cent of the intensity of full-time study: completion rates among entrants studying at and above this intensity are substantially higher than those among entrants studying at lower intensities.

8.   Forty-four per cent of students commencing programmes at UK HEIs (other than the Open University) at 30 per cent or higher intensities go on to complete that programme within seven academic years (rising to 48 per cent within 11 academic years). For those studying at below 30 per cent intensity, 18 per cent have completed after seven academic years (rising to 22 per cent within 11 academic years).

9.   The equivalent proportions for entrants to institutional credits and first degree programmes at the Open University who complete within seven academic years (and 11 academic years) are 17 per cent (24 per cent) for those studying at the higher intensity and 10 per cent (15 per cent) for lower intensities.

10.   Increasing intensity of study between the first and second years of the programme substantially increases the likelihood that a student with an intensity of 30 per cent or below in the first year goes on to complete their degree within 11 academic years. This likelihood rises from 27 per cent to 46 per cent for UK HEI (non-Open University) entrants, and from 24 per cent to 36 per cent at the Open University.

Action required

11.   No action is required in response to this document.

Date: 1 May 2009

Ref: 2009/18

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Student data, Research, Planning

Enquiries should be directed to:

Alison Brunt, tel 0117 931 7166, e-mail