Can students afford to gamble on paying to spend three years at university in our current economic climate? We look at the option of graduating without ever being in the same room as your tutor.

Now that crazy levels of personal debt are starting to scare the nation, the economic facts of life tell us that some people will be thinking twice about signing up for university or college. After all, it means you’ll have to fund at least three years of tuition fees, rent, bus fares, gas bills, happy hours and dubious takeaway food.

Yes, we’re told that a degree should lead us to a higher starting salary and a lifetime of increased earnings, but a Government report stated that first-year students who started university in 2006 will owe an average of £15,000 each by the time they graduate. In the current climate of insecurity, can students afford the gamble?

It’s perhaps no surprise that some of us are choosing to earn while we learn, either by opting for part-time study courses or choosing the distance-learning option. Distance learning involves taking a course without attending lectures and tutorials on campus. The possibilities created by the internet, phone support and digital media mean that it is now more practically possible than ever to graduate without ever being in the same room as your tutor.

Tom Rance, 24, from Wellesborne, Warwickshire, was on a full-time degree programme at Durham University when he realised that the cost of living was becoming too much. He’d already decided that he wanted to become a police officer, so he took the jump and left Durham to join Northamptonshire Police. Paying fees of around £100 a month to Resource Development International (RDI), an online distance learning provider, Tom was able to complete his degree in his free time. “The payment scheme means my university education is cheaper and much more flexible than taking a campus programme”, he said.

RDI say that enrolments onto their distance learning courses are up 30 per cent on last year, which they put down to the credit crunch. Chief executive Dr Philip Hallam said: “In these austere times, parents funding their children's studies, young people starting on the career path and mature students are all seeing the benefits of a more affordable education route.”

But campus life can be a lot of fun and there is potential for a big part of the investment you make to be paid back through the social skills and independence you can gain – not to mention the people you meet on your course, who can form a group of contacts to help you in your later career.

Ucas reports that over 450,000 new students were admitted to university places in 2008, up 10 per cent on 2007; even so, Universities UK, the major representative body for British higher education, say that a change in culture when it comes to graduate-level learning is inevitable.

Professor Rick Trainor, Universities UK president and principal of King's College London, says: “Individuals are likely to need to re-skill at several points in their working lives to keep pace with employer expectations. In this future landscape, public policy will need to support the tendency for people to move in and out of study and work in practical ways."