Online degrees: A model worth emulating or a plan that risks creating a two-tier system?

David Willetts wants more people to take degrees by distance learning at further education colleges. Lucy Hodges looks at what it could involve

For the past 150 years, the University of London has given students the chance to study for an external degree. Nelson Mandela took an external law degree while imprisoned on Robben Island; the Nobel prize-winner Charles Kao signed up for a course as a young refugee from Shanghai, and the Labour MP Gisela Stuart is another alumnus. The University of London has approaching 50,000 students studying by distance and flexible learning in more than 180 countries.

Now the Universities minister, David Willetts, is lauding it as a model for opening up higher education to many more people in Britain without having to spend too much money. The University of London claims to offer the cheapest degrees in the country via its distance-learning qualifications. A law degree costs a mere £3,500 altogether: some degrees are even cheaper; others, such as classical studies, more expensive. That compares with the fees most universities charge of £3,225 a year – £9,675 in total.

"We have a model that could well be emulated by other universities, says Professor Jonathan Kydd, dean of the external system. "It could lead to greater diversity in the sector for private and public institutions. We would solve two of their problems – the curriculum and the standard of their degrees."

Another institution that offers similar distance-learning degrees is The Open University, which, like the London external system, is highly regarded and relatively cheap. It charges more than the University of London, but not as much as a conventional higher education institution.

In a speech at Oxford Brookes University, Willetts said that students should be able to study at a local further education college for an external degree from a university, something that happens already all over the country but not on a vast scale. His idea was that this could be expanded to widen participation, reduce costs and raise standards.

At the moment, the University of London's external system doesn't have dealings with further education colleges, according to Kydd. That's because of the centralised funding system that controls the number of students by capping allocations to institutions.

Kydd believes Willetts could realise his ambition of getting more people to learn at FE colleges in towns that don't have universities by doing away with the controls on student numbers and increasing student loans so that they cover the cost of taking an external degree at, say, the University of London. Although the fees are low, students have to pay extra for face-to-face tuition where they live. Such reforms would free up the system and enable students to find the money they need, he thinks.

At the moment, some FE colleges are given a specific number of higher education places for students. Thus, the University of Liverpool runs various foundation courses with local FE colleges that enable people to progress from the college to a degree at the university. Students begin studies at an FE college for one or two years, and continue at the university in later years. This model applies to degree courses in medicine and dentistry, science and engineering, computer science and information systems.

The University of Warwick has a similar scheme that enables students to gain a degree through two years of study at a local college followed by two years at the university. This is designed for adults without formal qualifications.

The minister's plan has had a mixed reception. The Russell Group universities and those in the 1994 group of small and beautiful institutions such as Sussex are anxious that any shift to external degrees does not lead to a decline in the educational experience.

The university think-tank million+ believes it is a "cheap" and "old-fashioned" idea. Professor Les Ebdon, its chair, says: "Employers do not want people who just sit exams, but people with the graduate attributes and higher-level skills developed at university."

The proposal risks creating a two-tier system where those who can afford it go away to study, while students from poorer backgrounds study in FE rather than at university, he says.

'For me, as a mature student, it's brilliant'

Anita Bowden, 41, has been studying for an English literature degree for the past two years at Goldsmiths, University of London through the external programme.

"I couldn't afford to give up my income, and I wanted to complete my degree in three years, which the London programme allowed me to do. I have always wanted to be a teacher, and for that I need a degree.

I tried the OU (Open University), but that didn't suit me because it would have taken six years and cost more. This fits in better with what I need and what I want to do.

I have two teenage children taking GCSEs and A-levels. I pay for seminars which are conducted online and I have attended some summer schools. They last for five days and are fantastic. External courses don't suit everybody – and they would not suit every subject.

For me, as a mature student, it's brilliant. I didn't have the confidence to go to university when I was younger, and my parents couldn't afford it.

My daughter will go to art college: you couldn't do that remotely. We have our essays marked by email and we can use the online library, so it's pretty much like a conventional university, but minus the parties."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Senior Research Fellow in Water and Resilient communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: Our team of leading academic...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistants...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker