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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
news
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
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

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick