Distance Learning: The benefits of studying at home

A Government initiative encourages people on income support to learn, and the Open University is all set to help.

Distance learning is ideal for students who cannot get away from home to take a full time course at university or college. The Open University was launched partly on the premiss that there was a pool of under-qualified people - many of them at that time teachers without degrees - who'd welcome the chance to study part time at their own pace, based in their own homes. And so the OU, currently with 165,000 part time students, proved triumphantly. But the pool's not empty yet, and the Government's latest initiative to pay the fees of part time students on benefits will reveal just how deep it still is.

George Mudie, minister for lifelong learning, launched the new scheme at the OU in May. It means that people in receipt of income support, jobseeker's allowance, housing benefit and council tax benefit, and some others on very low incomes, will have their fees waived at most higher education institutions from the start of the next academic year.

The waiver will include existing students as well as those about to start a course, and will cover students on first-degree, HND or HNC courses that are equivalent to at least 50 per cent of a full time course. Students in further education with fees already waived will continue to qualify if funding is transferred to the Higher Education Funding Council. The scheme will not cover postgraduate study.

The Open University is hoping to attract many of the 25,000 students who could benefit. It estimates that it could take up to 10,000 extra recruits next year. It has already been allocated 4,000 more places as part of the Government's initiative to increase participation by students from poor backgrounds. "The OU is an excellent example of the potential benefits of the new scheme," said Mr Mudie, launching it at the OU's Milton Keynes HQ. "The OU has a 30-year record of ensuring all sections of the community can participate in higher education." In fact, the OU has campaigned for some time for better treatment of students wishing to study part time, and already has its own financial assistance fund for students on benefits.

"It is good to see so many new students being offered the chance to fulfil their potential," says Sir John Daniel, the Vice-chancellor. "It's an important step towards the goal of national lifelong learning."

Typical of the students the scheme is intended to help, is Michele Major, a 30-year-old mother of two who has been on income support since she separated from her husband two years ago. She will start a one-year foundation course in science in the autumn as the first step to a career in environmental science. Most of her course commitments will be undertaken at home, so she can continue to care for her two school-aged sons, and avoid the expense of travelling to college.

Michele hopes that with a degree she will be able to get the sort of job that will allow her to support herself and her children. "Without this assistance, I would not have been able to afford university study and that would have left me in the benefits trap," she says.

The OU has enormous experience of helping students who may lack confidence, as they've no recent experience of study. Pat Romans, Oxford's regional adviser, says: "All applications are vetted to make sure students are applying for courses they can cope with. We look at the subject and level to make sure it is appropriate to their previous educational experience and, if necessary, we will contact them to discuss their choice. Before they start, they will be invited to pre-course meetings with tutors where they will write a practice essay that'll be marked and discussed.

"Most students coming in will take a Level 1 course, which starts gently but leads to a standard equivalent to the end of the first year of a degree course. It is a steep learning curve. But, if we have doubts about them, we will recommend study packs that they can use before they start, or perhaps refer them to local return-to-study sessions. We may even suggest that they do some more work on an access course first."

OU tutors assigned to Level 1 students have the responsibility of seeing the student through. Part of their brief is to provide counselling as well as academic guidance; they have the freedom to arrange individual sessions with students, and are available on the phone for anyone who runs into difficulties.

"One problem with distance learning is the isolation, and most people come to us because they cannot travel to a conventional college or university," Pat Romans explains. "It is important that these students have someone they can turn to."

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