Higher Education: The fashionable option: More people are realising the attractions of part-time degree courses such as those offered at Birkbeck College, says Donald MacLeod

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The Independent Online
AS SHE juggles studying a law degree with a full-time job and looking after four children, Esther Izundu admits that her reading is falling behind a bit. 'I hardly have the time, but I am determined to continue. Law is something I have always wanted to do, and I thought this was an opportunity to fulfil that ambition.'

Part-time study is a 'hard, rough road', warns Simon Malynicz, who is in the same class at Birkbeck College, London. As far as he is concerned, however, it is preferable to giving up a job that he likes and going back to the poor life as a full-time student.

For almost 5,000 part-time students at the college, and thousands more across the country, the buzz of rediscovering learning or the hope of better qualifications outweigh the pains of part-time study.

Many are trying to boost their career prospects with a degree or a doctorate. For others, such as John Smith, a computer systems designer, the attraction is that his psychology course has nothing at all to do with work. Now in his final year of the degree course, Mr Smith is hoping to go on to do a doctorate through part-time research into obsessive compulsive disorders.

Suddenly, the Government and the university establishment are waking up to the advantages of part-time degrees as a way of expanding higher education at lower cost. The Higher Education Funding Council's latest circular, published last week, promised financial incentives to universities to recruit more part-time students.

Part-time degrees are 'in' - promoted by the right as Samuel Smiles-type self-help, and loved by the left as a second chance for the less advantaged students.

Baroness Blackstone, Master of Birkbeck College, argues that the Government now has to do more for part-time students. 'There is something wrong with a system where full-time students, however rich they are, have their fees paid by local authorities, while part-time students have to pay their own fees out of taxed income. They do not get tax relief and they are not eligible for student loans. Sometime soon the Government is going to have to grasp this nettle. It is completely mad.

'We have students who are dropping out because they cannot afford the fees. There is a huge amount of redundancy in the South- east,' Lady Blackstone says.

However, it is lack of time, not money, that is the most frequent lament. Moving house, promotion at work, having a baby or becoming unemployed all contribute to the high drop-out rate among part-time students. But their main problem seems to be reconciling demands on their time.

Birkbeck has been educating working students since George Birkbeck set up the London Mechanics' Institution 170 years ago, along the lines of a similar organisation in Glasgow. The average age at which undergraduates start their degrees is 28. A substantial number of students do not have A-levels, but entry is not 'first come, first served' in the manner of the Open University.

Rod Bateman, in his third year of a physics degree, says: 'The first year was a shock, getting your brain working again.' Mr Bateman, who dropped out of a polytechnic several years ago, says that some people do not view Birkbeck as a 'proper' university because it is part- time, even though the courses are just as

demanding.

The college aims to select people with the drive and energy to work and study at the same time. 'We want to know people are being realistic about coming three nights a week after work and realise what is involved. The thing that is fantastic about Birkbeck is its students,' Lady Blackstone says.

Inge Lee, in her third year of a psychology degree, says: 'There is a very high drop-out rate because of the pressures of working. Employers are expecting you to work longer and longer hours.'

Manigeh Etminan, a nursery teacher in Camden, north London, says she is determined to complete her psychology degree and become an educational psychologist, in spite of feeling drained after a day's work with under-fives: 'The feedback from the lecturers is very encouraging. They are such helpful people that you don't want to leave. It is like my home, this college.'

Students benefit from the varied experience that they and their fellow students bring to the class or seminar discussions. The law degree course offered by Birkbeck for the first time this academic year, for instance, has attracted a mixed bunch. Ms Izundu, a business development officer in Lewisham, has two degrees already; Nwanne Ofili is a secretary, coming to the course with a GCSE in law and a spell working in a law firm. Emmanuel Onwe feels that a law degree would help his work for Amnesty International, which involves observing trials. There are also lay magistrates on the course.

The knowledge that they bring to their seminars is an obvious advantage, although Mr Malynicz feels that some relate the topic too closely to their own work and do not have enough academic detachment. 'We are older than half the guys teaching us - it's hard to shut up and listen,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)

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