Fear of tuition fees creates Open University generation


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The Independent Online

A new generation of university students is choosing to live at home and study for degrees online to avoid soaring tuition fees and increasingly competitive entry requirements.

Growing numbers of school leavers are signing up for Open University degree courses, which allow students to study remotely. Figures show a 30 per cent rise in 18 and 19-year-olds enlisting for courses compared with last year.

Nearly one-third of the 2,100 teenagers to enrol this year come from the most deprived areas of the UK, the figures show. "The landscape of higher education has undergone some dramatic changes recently," Christina Lloyd, director of teaching and learning at the Open University, said. "We're seeing increasing numbers of new students aged 25 and under. However, the fastest-growing group is 18 and 19-year-olds."

She said one of the main motivations for enrolling was a learning environment that "fits studying around other commitments, which is vitally important as tuition fees rise".

Fees at the Open University currently average around £1,600 a year for full-time study. They will go up to £5,000 in September 2012 as it loses government funding, in common with other institutions.

The university accepts those with traditional A-level qualifications as well as those without them, who are often recommended to take a lower-level course before starting their degree. But this year's applicants include high-flying A-level students who have made a conscious decision before clearing to study through the Open University.

As candidates across the country received their results on Thursday, it was business as usual at the Open University rather than a rush to man the phones – emphasising that those who enlisted had made a lifestyle decision rather than panicking as a result of not getting the university place of their choice.

The figures show the total number of students under 25 is 32,139 – one-sixth of its student population. Its popularity among younger students has been growing since the introduction of top-up fees four years ago, suggesting that it has shed its Educating Rita of being the preserve of mature students turning to degree study later in life.

"The perception of employers of us has really, really changed over the last few years," Ms Lloyd said. "People were quite quizzical about the quality of the qualifications some time ago, but now an employer would search out an Open University graduate sitting alongside someone from a traditional university. "They have shown that they have the skill to juggle all of their responsibilities such as holding down a job and studying," she added.

James Fothergill, director of education and skills at the Confederation of British Industry, said: "The model of earning while you're learning is something we are supportive of. The CBI is in partnership with a number of universities over this type of learning and it's something we'd like to see more of. I think universities, employers and Government will find some changes in behaviour as far as the student pattern goes in the next few years. There are a number of ways you can learn employability skills – through work placements while at university, too."

The Open University's research shows that a third of its graduates are employed in a professional job within six months of graduating.

Case Studies: 'Because I'll be working I'll pay the fees as I go'

Sammie Weller, 19, Darlington

I got my A-level results on Thursday. I got two As and a C and was given an offer to study law at the University of Greenwich, but turned it down to go the Open University (OU). It's so expensive to do a standard three-year degree, even before the fee rises come in next year. You leave with so much debt and with no guarantee of a job. My mum left school with good O-levels but never went to college. Now she's a paramedic after doing a degree later in life. The fact that she's done things differently has shown me that you do not have follow the normal route to do well. Studying at the OU will allow me to learn flexibly. Because I'll be working, I'll be able to pay the fees as I go, and finish without any debt.

Kelly Cutsforth, 24, Hornsea

I joined Paine and Paine, a firm of solicitors in Hull, straight after my A-levels and used my wages to fund a law degree with the Open University, hoping to become a solicitor. After two years I took a more senior position as a private client executive at a different firm, which was evidently impressed by my commitment and qualifications. I completed the degree in four years and got an English law diploma and a certificate in social sciences as well. I originally chose the OU because I didn't want to face debt. I've recommended the OU to anyone thinking of going into further education. I am now set to do my legal training, which will take 16 months. One day I hope to start my own firm of solicitors.

Jamie Walton, 26, Lancaster

I decided to do a degree with the Open University after working in the Royal Navy. I joined up aged 16 to gain some sort of security, but soon realised it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life. My parents were supportive when I decided to study for an OU degree in psychology, which I completed just over four years. I then completed an Msc at Manchester Metropolitan University. I'm going to do my doctorate with the University of Nottingham and hopefully practice as a forensic psychologist. I'd tell anyone to go to the OU.