More youngsters choosing to 'earn while they learn'

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The Independent Online

Growing numbers of school leavers are choosing to earn while they learn, by taking Open University degrees at the same time as holding down full-time jobs rather than going away to study.

The number of people aged 18 to 25 taking Open University (OU) degree courses has more than doubled in the past five years – from 5,894 in 1996-97 to 11,360 last year. The age group represents 9.2 per cent of the total number of OU students, up from 5.8 per cent five years ago.

The good news for the Government is that the OU appears to be attracting young students from families and areas without a tradition of going to university, helping ministers move towards their declared target of getting 50 per cent of youngsters into higher education by the end of the decade.

The trend has been exacerbated by the introduction of tuition fees and the removal of maintenance grants for university students.

Professor Allan Cochrane, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the OU, said: "Perhaps the most obvious reason is that the cost of going to other universities is putting people off. Our fees are significantly lower.

"Increasingly, those who do go away to university are spending a significant amount of time on part-time jobs to earn. This is just doing it the other way round."

Professor Cochrane added that another reason was the state of the economy, with jobs readily available for people aged 18 to 25. "An increasing number of young people seem to want to start on their career while studying," he said. "Some of them, however, have gone to other universities and they find some aspects of the lifestyle not suitable for them.

"There are some young people who are quite goal-orientated and find it a bit strange going to university because they do not believe there is a strong enough work ethic."

He said many younger OU students were opting for more vocational degree courses, such as business studies, computing and information technology. "It looks to me as if this has been a pretty steady growth in this age group over the last few years and the only thing which could cause a blip would be if there was a recession and the jobs failed to become available," the professor said. "People might think then that it was time to hide away in universities rather than try and enter the jobs market."

Professor Cochrane said he felt the younger age group found it "a bit more difficult" to adapt to the demands of the OU work ethic than its typical students, the thirtysomethings.

"If I'm honest, they tend not to do quite as well as some of the older students – but they certainly don't make a hash of it," he said. "We have to think about our tutoring style, too, because we may make assumptions for some of our older students about the amount of experience they have had.

"It is true that we are attracting students from the kind of areas where the Government wants to widen participation with this growth in younger students. Maybe they are the ones who think they will be most directly affected by the cost of going to university."

Ben Pickard is typical of the increasing number of youngsters opting to learn and earn. At 23, he is taking a business degree with the Open University while working in the sales department of a software company near his home in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

He did try to follow the traditional university route at first, having passed A-levels in Latin, Greek, history and ancient history. But he gave up his history course at Leeds University after a term and a half.

"It didn't fit in with my framework or my lifestyle," he said. "I was wondering what preparation is this giving me for my working life. I'll have to go and retrain if I want to go on into business."

He was also put off by the thought of the debts he would accrue if he stayed away at university for three years.

"Now I'm actually earning while I'm studying. It is difficult at times. I work hard during the week so there's really only the weekend for my university work – but I'm getting added value in business experience while I'm studying, learning IT skills which I probably wouldn't do studying history at Leeds. Paying £1,000 [in tuition fees] for a few hours of seminars and lecturers at a traditional university doesn't seem like a good deal to me."

His second stab at a degree course started with a portfolio of workplace learning at Middlesex University which will count towards his Open University degree. He is optimistic that he will be able to finish his studies faster than the three years set aside for a traditional university degree course for school leavers.