Fears over 40% fall in part-time students
A "perfect storm" of causes is leading to a rapid and worrying decline in part-time student numbers in England, university leaders have warned.
The Universities UK study blames rising fees, pressure on household budgets and reduced support from employers.
It examines why part-time students have fallen by 40% in two years, equivalent to a reduction of 105,000.
There are concerns that such part-time courses are necessary to provide the skills needed by industry.
Sir Eric Thomas, who headed the review, said "something is going wrong".
There has been widespread recognition of the economic importance of part-time courses in allowing adults to improve their skills.
Most of the 500,000 students taking part-time courses are adults, a majority are women and most will be studying a vocational or work-related course.
But the numbers have been been tumbling for two years and the report says that next year's recruitment figures do not suggest that this downward trend will be reversed.
Professor Thomas, who is vice-chancellor of Bristol University, said: "The reality is that the UK needs more graduates and relies heavily on part-time higher education to meet these fast-changing skills needs in a fast-changing world.
"We ignore part-time study's transformative power for individuals and society at our peril.
"In England in particular, numbers are declining and do not look like rallying."
The report says that the sharp decline in numbers reflects a combination of factors.
It calls for part-time courses to be seen as an integral part of higher education and "not as an add-on".
"There needs to be an urgent push at all levels - national, regional and local - to help potential students and employers understand the value of and opportunities for part-time higher education," says the report.
Rachel Wenstone, National Union of Students vice president, said there needed to be more thought about how part-time degree courses were compatible with people's lives.
"This obvious decline cannot be swept under the carpet any longer - there needs to be a collective response from all levels to the challenges that these groups of students are facing," she said.
The Confederation of British Industry's chief policy director, Katja Hall, said: "It's shocking that the number of part-time undergraduate students has plummeted over the last two years.
"For our economy to stay competitive we'll need more people with higher levels of skills, so it's more important than ever that working people have the opportunity to re-train and up-skill."
Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities, said: "A decline in part-time study could hamper the UK's attempts to extend its skills base and economic growth."