Distance learning is flexible, cheap and convenient. No wonder it's on the increase

When Rose Tyrrell was diagnosed with a brain tumour while studying for a diploma in management, she feared she might never qualify. But thanks to the flexibility of her home learning programme, she was able to spread the 12-month course over two years as she underwent treatment. Now she is aiming for a degree.

Fiona Owen was packing vegetables in a factory when her mother handed her a prospectus for the Open University. Five years on, she has graduated with a BA in religious studies and is emigrating to America to study for her Masters.

Tyrrell and Owen are among tens of thousands of adults benefiting from a flourishing distance learning industry. Today's market is saturated with providers, from small family businesses specialising in bespoke management courses for corporate clients, to institutions like Holborn College, renowned for its specialist law and business degrees, and ICS (International Correspondence Schools), which offers GCSEs and A-levels.

The ever-growing range of courses has been matched by their growing flexibility. In an age when many people have to juggle study with full-time jobs and parental responsibilities, providers are increasingly prepared to offer programmes with no set deadline for completion. And these days anyone with an internet connection can attend tutorials and seminars in online chat-rooms, access reference material from virtual libraries, and submit assignments via e-mail.

Tyrrell, 53, a council administrator, took her diploma with Resource Development International (RDI), an independent provider based in Coventry. She explains: "I could e-mail my tutors at any time, and there are forums where you can speak to other students. With assignments, all the questions were available on CD-ROM, and all you had to do was e-mail them back. It was brilliant."

For Owen, 24, the attraction of home learning had as much to do with avoiding top-up fees as it did with flexibility: "It's taken me five years, but I've been able to set my own pace, and it's so much cheaper. With the Open University, each year costs about £700, including exams, whereas normal college tuition fees are far higher now."

The British Council predicts that, by 2020, 800,000 people will be enrolled on distance-learning programmes run by UK providers. The biggest of these, ICS, offers 17 different GCSEs in subjects ranging from law to nutrition, for a shade under £300 apiece. It also boasts A-levels in 15 subjects (£349 a time), and a burgeoning menu of Btecs and vocational certificates in everything from beauty therapy to infection and contamination control. The company, established in America in 1890 but now based in Glasgow, has just launched its 15th degree - a BA Honours in criminology and criminal justice - in partnership with the University of East London.

Unlike the OU, which allows anyone to enrol regardless of prior qualifications, ICS degrees have course-specific entry requirements set by the University of East London. The programmes, though, are exceptionally flexible: rather than having to pay up front, you can take taster modules before deciding whether to progress.

Britain's longest-standing distance learning provider is the University of London. Its external programme was established in 1958, and boasts 34,000 students in 180 countries. The most recent additions to its prospectus include courses in dentistry and a Masters in information security and cryptology.

For many, the term home learning has other connotations. A growing number of companies now provide home study materials to aid children with their homework. One such provider, @ School, offers an award-winning computer-based package for primary pupils featuring more than 20,000 curriculum-led internet links and activities. Another, Eclipse Books, has produced an acclaimed CD-ROM program, Petit Pont, as a study aid in French.