A break from the norm

If you'd rather learn than lie on a beach, summer schools are the answer. By Maureen O'Connor
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The Independent Online
WHEN MOST people's sights are set on sun, sea and sangria in July and August, a minority set out for semi-deserted university campuses to indulge in some summer learning. Summer schools have become big business for the universities, with all those empty beds providing a useful resource. For the punters, the learning opportunities are astonishing.

The biggest provider of summer learning is the Open University which this year will send 27,000 of its students on one-week residential courses at universities around the country as a compulsory part of their degree studies. Next year, it will pioneer new courses in technology, and is already looking at ways of providing its science students with laboratory experience on a residential basis.

For the general population, the choice of courses ranges from degree- level work, some of it offering credit, to day and half-day courses in just about every subject you could think of, and in venues which offer the opportunity to see the dreaming spires of Oxford or the Highlands of Scotland.

Committed undergraduate learners may be best-served by something like the Summer University offered by Lancaster. This provides a range of modules which attract credit towards a degree, as well as help with study skills, personal development and information technology. Courses typically run for between three and eight days, and end with an assessment by extended essay and/or examination which can be credited towards undergraduate courses at Lancaster or elsewhere. Subjects include criminology, health alternatives, Biblical Hebrew, the sociology of law, language and gender and Arabic.

Lancaster also offers a week of family friendly leisure courses at the end of July, where parents can indulge in a range of full-day or half- day courses from golf to philosophy, while children under eight can attend an activity centre run by the university's pre-school staff and eight- to 14-year-olds take part in a range of sporting and artistic activities.

Many universities take advantage of their location to enhance their summer offerings. Lancaster is within 40 minutes' drive of the Lake District, and is even nearer to the Pennines. Stirling, with an extensive range of courses which have now been running for 22 years, takes advantage of its situation as a gateway to the Highlands.

Courses there focus on four specific themes - the creative arts; culture, society and the natural heritage; music and dance and natural therapies. And many offer a Scottish dimension for those who want it, from the study of historic Stirling itself to a course on the Scottish bagpipe, and one on Roman Scotland. Courses last from one to five days.

Nottingham University is unusual in offering a series of weekend breaks that allow people to study a range of subjects for just two days at venues as far afield as Manchester, North Wales and Devon and Cornwall. You can go to Scarborough with the university to study seabirds or Dorchester to study Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Nottingham also has a long-established summer school for a week in July, and most courses there offer credit towards the university's Certificate of Higher Education qualification. Fourteen subject areas range over art, music, history and computing, while one tutor this year is taking on one of the biggest subjects of all - the universe itself - by offering a course which explores the latest theories about and discoveries in space.

At the University of Oxford, courses are run at Rewley House, which is purpose-designed as a residential college with its own library, lecture theatre and student facilities. More than 50 one-week summer-school courses run from 17 July to 21 August this year, and cover a host of topics in history, literature, music, film, art and the sciences. A local history summer school runs from 10 to 17 July.

Rewley House prides itself on the quality of its lecturers, and teaching in small groups, usually not more than 12-strong. As well as serious study, participants are encouraged to go to museums, art galleries, plays and concerts in the city, and to enjoy the attractions of the ancient university.

Rather than concentrate its offerings into a single week in summer, Keele University spreads them out over the year. Subjects covered include the study of the "Living Landscape", the history of stoneware, archaeology and field-walking, bell-ringing and a chamber music summer school for a week in August.

For those looking for the broadest choice of venue, the Summer Academy has a range of courses in 16 universities in England, Scotland and Wales, and at Cork in Ireland. They run from June to August and cover four themes - the arts, the countryside, heritage and personal development.

Accommodation varies in quality and price, and is not perhaps as spartan these days as legend has it. Most will be in university halls of residence, where en-suite facilities have become more common as universities have recognised the advantages of the conference and summer-school "trade", but the better accommodation will generally cost more. Standard rooms usually include a wash-basin with other bathroom and kitchen facilities serving a group of rooms nearby. Many universities are happy to accommodate whole families, offering double and/or adjacent rooms.

Oxford University's Department of Continuing Education at Rewley House is converted from Victorian terraces close to the city centre and other colleges. Accommodation is either in Rewley House itself, or in annexes close by in single or twin en suite rooms that run to a few luxuries like televisions and hairdryers.

What does all this cost? A single room with full board and a week's course at Rewley House in Oxford is pounds 400 for a twin room, pounds 540 for a single. Courses advertised by the Summer Academy cost between pounds 400 and pounds 475 for a week, while a week at a music summer school at Keele will cost pounds 475.

For further information, contact the universities concerned or call the Summer Academy brochure service on 01227 470402