It pays to keep your learning at a distance

You can save a lot of money by taking a degree at The Open University

Dan Clement is a 19-year-old student with a very untypical student lifestyle. When he's not studying for his BSc in criminology and psychology, he's pounding the beat. Dan works as a police community support officer and is taking his degree with The Open University (OU). Not only is he earning while learning, but his employers are paying his course fees.

Students such as Dan look set to become more and more the norm. Last year, the OU experienced a 36 per cent increase in the number of 18- to 21-year-olds enrolling for its courses, and it is bracing itself for another surge in young applicants this month as the annual university Clearing mêlee kicks off.

Although the recent surge is unprecedented, there's been a more gradual increase in students under 25 joining the OU for years, and they now make up around one quarter of the student body, says Dr Christina Lloyd, the head of teaching and learner support at the OU. "In the past, we put it down to the introduction of tuition fees for conventional universities. More recently, I think the recession has been a key player.

"It is more expensive to do a conventional higher education degree away from home than stay at home, maybe have a part-time job, and study with the OU; our fees are significantly lower. Many young students also qualify for financial help. The OU can be the debt-free alternative route to a degree."

But how do students fresh from school cope in a university usually associated with mature learners? In fact, the OU's statistics show their course completion rates are not significantly different from the student body as a whole.

"At first, I was a bit worried as I was the youngest person on the course and I didn't know if my work would be up to standard," Clement says. "But I'm pleased to say that those fears have gone, thanks to some really good assignment scores and positive feedback from my tutor.

"Fitting the work around my shifts proved to be a bit difficult to begin with, as when you've done a 10pm-7am shift, studying is the last thing you want to do when you get home! However, I've managed to squeeze everything in so far and my employers have been really supportive.

"If there's ever any quiet time, as there often is on a night shift, they don't mind me pulling out my book and doing some work. They think it's a great idea, even though you don't need any formal qualifications to be a police officer. I'm constantly getting praised from the higher-ups for putting in the extra work and showing dedication to my career."

Lloyd adds: "I don't see us as competing with traditional universities; we are offering a different experience. It's about students making positive decisions to come and study with us because of their personal circumstances - they may be concerned about accumulating debt; they may have a job they want to hang on to.

"We're not the second choice, we're the first choice for those for whom our methodology suits."

The methodology of studying at home, at a distance, has been revolutionised over the past decade by the growth of online and mobile learning. Students now interact with each other via electronic routes. The OU passed another electronic milestone in June when it became the first university in the world to have 20 million of its educational tracks downloaded from iTunes U. The OU also has a dedicated channel on YouTube and its own Facebook page.

Online learning and electronic communication have been a particular boon to young students, suggests Lloyd. "We don't have a student union or a bar to meet in, but nowadays we are more where the youngsters are. They are plugged into Facebook and YouTube, so we are providing them with an environment in which they can interact with others. There is a lot of e-communication in our structure and support mechanisms.

"We recently did an experiment in running an induction meeting in the virtual world Second Life, and we had an amazing response - it was seriously oversubscribed."

Young student Tania Heap found the OU helped her social life. After leaving school, she moved for health reasons to the Canary Islands, where she studied full time with the OU, living at home and being supported by her parents.

"I met many people online through the OU, and some I then met in person. It started by going to the online forums for study support - we would use them to discuss course-related stuff and share worries with other students. I found there were people my age and even younger. Then we made friends. Eventually, I met some of them in person - and we are still friends.

"Students now join course-related groups on Facebook and make friends that way. It's the opposite way round from a conventional university. Instead of studying together face-to-face and then keeping in touch online, you start out online and then meet face-to-face. I think with the growth of social networks, distance learning is less isolating than it used to be."

Heap completed a BSc (Hons) in psychology with the OU in three years. At the age of 22, on the strength of her degree, she landed a job teaching Key Stage 3 pupils in a local English school. She also continued studying with the OU. Now 26, she is working and has a Masters in psychology and has just started an online doctorate in education.