A degree without the debt... where do I sign? Birkbeck College says pioneering night classes are on the rise


Hundreds of young people – many of them straight from school – are signing up for pioneering "night school" courses so that they can study for a degree while holding down a full-time job during the day.

About 700 students, including scores of school-leavers who would have taken a traditional three-year degree course before the introduction of £9,000 a year fees, have enrolled for this year's courses.

The dramatic increase from 28 students three years ago has prompted Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, to seek permission from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to offer 1,000 places as demand for night-time study rises.

Lecturers believe the phenomenal success of the courses is an important harbinger of a change in higher education.

The popularity of the new courses, for which students would have to attend lectures three or four nights a week, coincides with a slump in the take-up of its traditional four-year part-time degree courses – from 1,200 students to fewer than 700.

"What has saved us economically has been the three-year evening courses," said David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck College. "Their numbers have soared, and they probably now account for the majority of our students. It has been quite an amazing transformation. I wish I could say we had shrewdly planned it that way – but they have just taken off of their own accord."

At between £8-9,000, the courses are similarly priced to, or slightly cheaper than, conventional university courses, but the Birkbeck format enables students to hold down jobs to help pay for their education and avoid accruing too great a debt.

Typical of the students signing up for the new "night schools" is Ellie Winter, 18, who has started a combined politics, philosophy and history course at Birkbeck. She hopes to work in politics after graduating, and cited Birkbeck's closeness to Westminster and the ability to hold down a job during the day time as key reasons for enrolling on the course.

"After my first year, I hope to be able to get some work experience with an MP during the day, and having my days free also means I'll be able to go to other events in Westminster," she added.

Another night-school student, Charity Mapfeka, 27, did not consider a university degree when she left college. It was only after having her first child at a time when she was working for a law firm that she decided to enrol.

"I enrolled on the three-year programme," she said. "It wasn't an easy ride: during my first year I was suffering from severe headaches as a result of complications during the birth of my son and then in my final year I fell pregnant again.

Charity's boss said it was "the best decision ever" to take the degree course, and she believes she would have had to continue in secretarial duties if she had not opted for it.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the course is that it qualifies for student loans as a three-year degree course – unlike Birkbeck's four-year part-time course.

Students' leaders added it was "unsurprising" that today's young people were turning to courses like the "night school". Toni Pearce, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Given the squeeze on undergraduate living costs we are seeing, it is perhaps unsurprising that students are increasingly turning to institutions like Birkbeck with long and proud histories of offering flexibility to mature and part-time students looking to study with work and caring responsibilities."

The universities minister, David Willetts, has welcomed more flexibility in the provision of degrees. However, his department did not want to comment yesterday.

Meanwhile, the university is lobbying for changes over funding for students taking second degree courses – who lost their financial support under Labour.

A partial thaw to restore funding for so-called Stem courses (in science, technology, engineering and maths) has been announced by Mr Willetts but Birkbeck's Professor Latchman believes it should be more widespread.

"We welcome that, but we believe it should be extended to vocational studies like law, psychology and education," he said.

Case studies: 'Everyone here is very motivated to do well'

Caiti Cullen For Caiti, 18, Birkbeck's night-school course was ideal. It allowed her to work during the day and pay for her commute from her home in Bedfordshire for the evening lectures. She describes herself as mature for her age, and says it would not have been ideal for her to have been taught in class full of other 18-year-olds.

"I had my first lecture on Wednesday and I met so many lovely people – some students in their fifties, some who are raising kids at the same time as studying," she said. "You can tell that everyone who's there is very motivated to do well and I think that can only be a benefit."

Caiti enrolled for a course in linguistics and language and is looking for translation work in London, which will boost her CV once she graduates.

"The fact that the college is in London is a huge advantage when it comes to employment options," she says. "It means I'll be able to cover my train fares and also gain professional experience, which is directly applicable to my degree. I think that my work and studies will both benefit from combining the two."

Jai Andrew Jai had planned to study English at Manchester University on a more traditional route to a degree – but a brush with the criminal justice system just before he was due to start his course led to him taking an interest in the law.

He said the Birkbeck scheme allowed him to gain experience working with a law firm while doing his studies in the evening.

"These days employers look for job candidates who understand the mechanics of the job, not just the academic side," he said.

During his three-year degree course, which ended this summer, Jai worked for a charity, the Prisoners, Families and Friends Service, which helps the families and friends to support former prisoners to reduce reoffending. By his second year he was going to court a couple of times a week and carrying out office management work for the charity. It gave him great work experience, he said, plus insights that also helped him with his academic work.

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