Higher Education: They waive the fees, you find a job: Free part-time courses are helping people to bounce back into work. Helen Hague reports

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The Independent Online
When redundancy strikes and jobs are hard to come by, there are strong arguments for adding to your qualifications. Going to college may seem preferable to languishing on the dole, and job-seekers who can show they are keen to learn are likely to fare better than those who are ground down by a stream of rejection slips.

When money is tight, enrolling on a study course can seem a daunting financial prospect. It need not be, however. This year, more than 1,000 students in the West Midlands have been studying on free, part-time courses at the University of Central England in Birmingham (UCE).

The university waives fees for those hardest hit by the recession: the unemployed, those on income support and those receiving family credit. All fees are paid, including those for tuition, external exam registration and residential study, and this covers almost every course on the syllabus, from the City and Guilds jewellery craft course to the high-powered Masters in Business Administration (MBA). The scheme is now in great demand, and registrations have increased by 80 per cent since last year.

Alan Cooney is one of 76 students enrolled on the MBA, 10 of whom are benefiting from the fee waiver scheme. He and six others have since found work and are continuing their studies.

Mr Cooney's success in the jobs market is an eloquent testimony to the scheme's value. He was made redundant from his post as group marketing director in his forties, a tricky time to find yourself without work for the first time. Intent on self- improvement, he began a course at Walsall College to become a lecturer in business studies, building on his expertise. As he was browsing through leaflets at the college's drop-in centre, one spelling out the UCE scheme caught his eye. He enrolled for an MBA - and is now a marketing development officer for another higher education institute in the Midlands. He is continuing his part-time studies at UCE, for which he is now able to find the fees.

He attributes his re-entry to the world of work directly to the course. 'The fact that I was doing an MBA was a very good indication to interviewers that I was taking the future seriously. I feel it tipped the balance in my favour compared with the other applicants. And without the fee waiver scheme, it would not have been possible.'

Kwasi Ofei, also on the MBA course, is hoping his studies will help him to realise his ambition of moving from the voluntary sector to private enterprise. Mr Ofei was deputy director of a community organisation for 12 years, until it closed down three years ago. He now has plans to set up a property development company and is acquiring skills that will help him to get a good start.

'The fee waiver scheme is a godsend,' he says. 'The course has helped me to define my goals. As a single parent bringing up a 12-year-old daughter, it would not have been possible for me to find the money to study.'

For Tony Buckingham, who has a Higher National Certificate in building design, the scheme has made it possible to fulfil his ambition of studying for a degree in architectural studies, despite the recession in the building industry. The downturn has brought with it changing employment patterns, and the move from salaried posts to contract jobs.

Mr Buckingham, now 24, signed up for the course when he was made redundant from a multi-disciplinary design company. He was able to work on live contracts at college under qualified architects - a necessary stipulation from the Royal Institute of British Architects for degree students. He is now back working under contract for the firm which laid him off, and will be able to foot the bill himself next year.

'The chance to study for a degree when I lost my job was brilliant. There is no way I could have found the money,' he says.

Qualifying as an architect is a long process. As a part-time student, now in his second year, Mr Buckingham has another seven years to go if he continues to study part time.

The degree in combined business studies is the most popular course with students taking part in the UCE scheme, closely followed by law courses and the HND in business and finance. On this evidence alone, UCE's argument that its scheme will help to boost the region's economy seems well founded. There are also plenty of applicants for the City and Guilds jewellery craft course.

It will cost the university pounds 310,000 this year to fund the scheme, for which it receives no extra government support. David Warner, pro-vice chancellor at UCE, says: 'There must be a lot of people elsewhere who would benefit from studying part-time but are prevented from doing so by their personal financial situation. They are caught in a double bind. They don't have a job and they can't afford course fees. If you believe education is a national resource, it's a huge waste.

'If there are so many people in this area who have enrolled, there must be tens of thousands of people throughout the country who could benefit from such schemes.'

(Photograph omitted)