For most freshers starting university this month, the attraction of becoming an undergraduate is as much about the social life as it is about stepping up a level in academic study. But for many students the campus experience is out of reach, either because of cost, or because career or family commitments make leaving home impossible. For this group of people, distance learning provides an ideal answer, where the power of the internet is harnessed to open up course materials and provide a platform for conversations between students and teachers.
The central selling point is encapsulated in one of the banner quotes appearing on the front page of the website of the Open University (OU) (www.open.ac.uk): "You don't have to go to uni to get a degree." This quote runs beside a picture of a casually dressed young woman, who looks about 20 years old, although one of the key features of distance learning is that it attracts and suits all ages.
The OU is, numerically, the biggest player on the British distance learning landscape, with 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates. The vast majority live in the UK. At all other British institutions, however, the majority of distance learners are foreign nationals based abroad. The University of London, for example, has 45,000 students on 100 different distance learning study programmes, only 6,000 of whom are based in Britain.
Each of the London programmes is led by one of the constituent colleges. The BSc in economics, for example, is centred at the London School of Economics, while the MSc in international management, specialising in China, is based at the School of Oriental and African Studies. One of the courses launching this autumn, an MSc in petroleum geoscience, based at Royal Holloway, highlights the attraction of distance learning for people whose working lives prevent them from staying in one place.
"People working in the petroleum industry head to anywhere in the world where they believe there'll be oil, and then maybe move somewhere else," says Andrew Bollington, chief operating officer of London University's External System. "So distance learning is a perfect fit for them."
Elsewhere, most distance learning courses are for postgraduates only. Liverpool University, for example, works in partnership with the American organisation Laureate Education, whose experience and expertise in the technological practicalities of building and delivering online courses are exploited by more than 50 other universities around the world. The course tutors, employed by Laureate, are also spread around the world, usually doing extra work on top of their day jobs at academic institutions.
But, according to Lisa Anderson, director of studies of Liverpool's online MBA, all distance learning courses retain a Liverpool flavour. "We're heavily involved in the design of all the programmes, and the teaching and learning approach, and we have groups of academics in all departments who are involved in the virtual classrooms, ensuring that the quality of academic experience matches what students on campus get," she says.
Kerry Meyers, 36, a website manager at a further education college in Atlanta, Georgia, recently started Liverpool's distance learning MSc in global consumer marketing. "My professor is an Indian, who's travelled all around the world, and is now living in Chile, and my fellow students come from Africa, Asia and Europe," she says. That illustrates the truly international nature of the learning experience that attracted her to the Liverpool course.
"Once a week we have a forum where we all have to respond to discussion questions, and exchange ideas with one another, backed up by references to the reading we've done," she says. "It's really exciting."
Another attraction of distance learning for students is that tuition fees are generally less than for campus-based students, although details very between universities and courses.
The unique selling point of latest distance learning institution to launch, the University of the People (www.uopeople.org), based in California, is that there are no tuition fees at all, although enrolment and exam costs come to about £100 a year. The organisation, set up by a multimillionaire Israeli businessman, Shai Reshef, will rely on online tutors giving their time on a voluntary basis.
"We are trying to broaden the reach of education to under-served populations, people who can't access university in its current state," says communications director Rob Cohen. The first multinational cohort of 172 students, split between two undergraduate level courses, in computer science and business administration, began their studies last month.