Numbers of part-time students starting degrees at UK universities have hit a new low, figures suggest.
The number of first-year students studying part time in 2014-15 fell by 6% on the previous year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Overall, the number of part-time first years has fallen by 38% in five years – from more than 428,000 in 2010-11 to below 266,000 last year.
Student leaders urged ministers to acknowledge this “dramatic decline”.
The National Union of Students blames much of the decline on changes to student funding after 2012, which saw fees trebled in England and similar fee rises for English students at universities in Wales and Scotland.
“Since tuition fees tripled, part-time student numbers have been going down,” said Sorana Vieru, NUS vice-president for higher education.
“Like with the scrapping of maintenance grants, every time the government launches a new attack on students, they tout out that student numbers have not been affected or have increased.
“But they fail to acknowledge that part-time numbers are in dramatic decline.
“Their commitment to social mobility and widening participation is only at surface level, and they do not realise that part-time education is essential to this agenda.”
The rise in tuition fees hit part-timers particularly badly as they are not eligible for maintenance loans in England.
Also, students are not offered tuition-fee loans to study for qualifications equivalent or lower than those they already hold.
And, last year, a Higher Education Policy Institute study suggested two-thirds of would-be part-time students did not qualify for tuition fee loans, largely because they already had a degree.
Other research has suggested that, at the same time, employers struggling after the recession have been less willing to fund employees to study part-time courses.
Dame Julia Goodfellow, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said the decline in part-time student numbers was “a serious cause for concern”.
“The opportunity to study on a part-times basis is vitally important, both for individuals and for the country,” she said.
“It contributes towards improving social mobility.
“The chancellor’s Spending Review statement in November announced that student maintenance loans are to be extended to part-time higher education students in England from 2018-19.
“We hope the changes will help address some of these falls in recent years, but more specific action may be needed.”
The Department for Business Innovation and Skills said the changes would mean maintenance support being offered to part-time students for the first time.
“The reasons for the decline in part-time students are complex but we want to ensure finance will not be a barrier for anybody with the potential to benefit from higher education,” said a spokesman.
Also, from next year, the rules on equivalent and lower level qualifications would be amended to exempt students wanting to retrain in engineering, technology and computer science.
They would now be able to get some tuition fee support, the spokesman added.