Degrees without the upheaval

Increasing numbers of adults are staying at home to study by distance learning, writes Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

The rising costs of higher education in the UK look set to swell the ranks of those opting to study at home through a distance-learning programme. Studying for an accredited qualification in your spare time - using reading lists, prepared materials and online resources to structure your learning - is an option that increasing numbers of people are finding suits their budget, lifestyle and ambitions.

"We are becoming increasingly aware that growing numbers of students cannot, or do not want to, attend university," says Professor Suzanne Robertson of the University of East London, which, in conjunction with International Correspondence Schools (ICS), part of Thomson Education Direct, has launched two new distance-learning degree courses: a BA (Hons) in Business Management and a BA (Hons) in Psychology Studies. At least three further programmes will be added in 2005.

The Open University, which took its first students in 1971, is the most recognised name in distance learning, with more than 200,000 students enrolled. Its 600 courses are open to those without the usual array of GCSEs and A-levels.

That isn't the case for all programmes, however. Those applying for the University of London's external study programme, for example, must match the institution's minimum entry requirements. "It's the same degree as the one studied by students attending the university. It's the same teachers preparing the course materials, setting the exam papers, and marking the exam papers," says Gavin Jones of the university's External Programme, which was established in 1858 and today serves more than 32,000 students spread across more than 180 countries.

Many distance learners are seeking additional qualifications to secure a promotion, or are looking to switch jobs without taking a career break to retrain. Others may have work or family commitments unsuited to university attendance, or may simply be furthering an interest.

Many of those who opt to study at KLC School of Design, a private institution based in central London, plan to use their "open learning" diploma in either interior or garden design to launch their own business. "It's a gentle way of changing careers," says Will Gibbs of KLC, which prices the two-year course at £995. "You can study at your own pace and you don't have to chuck in your existing job to retrain."

Juggling studies with other commitments is not for the faint-hearted, however. "Some students think it's an easier route, and we are careful to advise them otherwise," says Robertson of UEL. "It takes serious motivation to study alone."

The distance learner is also isolated from the stimulus of classroom debate and student interaction - although virtual-learning communities, e-mail networks and online forums have opened up new possibilities for collaboration, support and advice. "There is no substitute for the interaction of the classroom," admits Jon Bouffler, general manager of ICS. "But if you can't go to university because of other commitments, then these programmes offer the nearest alternative."