Students turn to earn-as-you-learn courses to avoid running up debt

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The Independent Online

Record numbers of teenagers fearful of running up huge student debts are shunning traditional three-year degree courses - and opting to "earn-as-you-learn" by doing an Open University degree.

Thousands of 18- to 21-year-olds now work full-time while doing degree courses. Academics expect the figures to rise even further if the Government wins its battle to bring in top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006.

Figures obtained by The Independent on Sunday show the number of students enrolling with the Open University for this year is around 156,000 - a 2.2per cent increase on last year's total. However, the largest increase is among under 21s - where the numbers have risen by 5.6 per cent to 5,347.

"Open University students can earn while they learn and fit their university around their work and personal commitments," said Professor David Vincent, the university's Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

"While many people perceive Open University students to be older students, the number of young students choosing to study with us continues to increase. Younger students are finding that studying with us is financially, socially and intellectually rewarding."

International research shows that in other countries that have introduced top-up fees, such as Canada, recruitment of working-class students has increased as a result of government aid to soften their debt burden. However, the number of middle-class youngsters whose parents earn more than the threshold for help has fallen.

Academics expect a similar trend in the UK - with many youngsters whose parents just fail to qualify for the university of their choice opting for an Open University degree and a job instead.

OU leaders first spotted the trend about six years ago when Labour introduced tuition fees for the first time. Last year, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds studying through the OU was 14,459 - almost three times as high as 1997, before fees were introduced.

A senior OU source said: "One factor is the fees going up. Everybody knows wherever they go they may have to pay more fees. Many people know they're going to have to work anyway to make ends meet. Studying with the OU is one way they can do that with a full-time job and maintain their economic status."

Ministers are also planning an expansion of two-year degree courses to avoid students getting into greater debt.

In a letter to David Young, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, says he wants to see the numbers taking two-year foundation degree courses expanded to 50,000 over the next two years. Another way of completing studies within two years would be to reduce university holiday time.

The introduction of top-up fees has led to fears among organisations planning "gap years" for students that the numbers participating will dwindle. However, Mr Clarke has told the HEFCE to put a financial squeeze on student numbers in order to avoid a stampede of youngsters opting to start university courses a year early in 2005 to avoid having to repay top-up fees.

'It's tough, but well worth it'

For David Hayden-Case, 19, university was simply too expensive, so, armed with three A-levels, he got himself a job as a printer and is studying part-time for a degree in business studies with the Open University.

"I work for five days a week, and study for 16 hours at weekends and in the evenings," said Mr Hayden-Case, of Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. "It's tough, but sacrifices have to be made."

Money was a major factor in the decision. "The idea of coming out of university with £15,000 debts and no relevant experience for a job was terrifying," said Mr Hayden-Case, who earns £16,000 a year.

"Now, I'll have a degree, the relevant experience and, hopefully, no debt."

Jonathan Thompson