Friday evenings hold a special place in the lives of most workers. The weekend stretches ahead and there's no need to set the alarm clock. But for a growing number of people the weekend has begun to mean something different. Not for them the night out or bottle of wine on the table. They are grabbing their notepads and heading off for university lectures and seminars.
Weekend postgraduate courses are growing in popularity, alongside evening study, not least because the recession has encouraged people to hold on to their jobs and gain extra qualifications to boost their CVs.
Long and unpredictable working hours can make it difficult for part-time students to make lectures and seminars in the evening, which is why most universities offer post-graduates the option to take study breaks or reschedule their modules. Now the weekend option is increasingly offered.
Catching on to the trend, Leeds Metropolitan University is launching a new suite of weekend courses in September leading to a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Teaching will be spread over six Saturdays and Sundays a year, the dates set in advance, with distance-learning support in-between, after which students will complete a dissertation.
The ambitious programme so far includes the Executive MBA and Masters in accounting, leadership and change management, marketing, human resource management and executive leadership. It will also offer an MSc in accounting (top-up) and an MA in childhood studies with two routes: early years, and children and young people.
To provide an authentic student experience the courses will be run together at the university's city centre building with access to the library and food court. The university is also opening up its accommodation to the new weekend recruits.
Weekend courses are not new: Leeds Met already offers a few, as do other institutions, but not on the scale being planned from September, says Barbara Colledge, the dean of the Business and Law faculty. "Market research suggests that evening study and part-time day release appeal less now because people are finding it more difficult to get time off work. People are very busy and after a long day at work the last thing they want to do is go on to study in the evening," she says.
Flexibility is the byword at the University of Winchester, where between 16 and 20 MBA students from a range of career backgrounds have been gathering one Friday in four since the weekend option was launched four years ago at its Basingstoke campus.
Wanting to meet the demand for places but keep classes small, the university is about to launch the weekend MBA on its Winchester campus. The seven modules are each taught over two weekends; but if students cannot make the dates, they can defer a module until the next weekend teaching sessions.
From September, Winchester will also offer accelerated weekend Masters courses in a range of business-related subjects including accounting, marketing and human resource management. "We find a lot of managers prefer to specialise in the area they are already working in rather than embark on a more general executive MBA," says Professor Neil Marriott, dean of the Faculty of Business, Law and Sport.
To fit in with working lives, the modules will be taught for two weekends – one in June, the second in September – with distance-leaning support in-between, followed by a dissertation to be submitted the following April. "The professional fast-track programmes recognise the learning that has already taken place to permit these business executives advanced standing onto a Masters degree. The Masters is normally made up of 180 credits, but fast-track students only need to complete 100 credits. The two taught modules are 20 credits each and the dissertation accounts for 60 credits. The dissertation is between 15,000 and 20,000 words and has to be an independent piece of research, which could be based in the workplace," says Professor Marriott.
One weekend a month students from all over the world arrive at Imperial College, London University, for the Executive MBA taught from Thursday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime. Dinner is included in the fees and provides an opportunity for the students to network and socialise.
Among them is Mehdi Rizvi, the director of operations planning at Ralph Lauren in New York. "I feel that the thinking in the US is still very US-centric and I wanted something different," he says. "The weekend programme allows me to disconnect from my life for four days a month and dive into a pure educational setting. This was the closest I could get to feeling like a student without actually attending full-time."
Flying in from New York is easy and affordable, he says, though he does miss his wife while he is in London. "In a changing global landscape, education quality must be combined with a perspective that traverses cultural and geographic boundaries," says Mehdi, who will graduate in May 2013.
"I remember particularly the class discussions and interactive lectures, especially on organisational be-haviour and negotiation management; the case study reviews; the euphoric feeling of hitting the submit button after completing a four-week team assignment; and the innovation, entrepreneur and design sessions. Not to mention the boat cruise on the Thames and the private session in a bowling alley followed by cocktails after finals! I've been able to apply what I've learnt, and that has had a positive impact on my career. I've made some amazing friends and have truly developed a global network," he adds.
The University of Glamorgan also attracts international students for its evening and weekend courses: one commuted from Sweden for two years for the graduate diploma in law.
But the biggest provider of part-time courses for people in work remains Birkbeck, London's evening university. In addition to the wealth of business, management and finance evening qualifications, the university in central London offers a range of humanities and social science Masters. Birkbeck has been a pioneer in organisational psychology and was the first university in the world to establish a department. The MSc in organisational psychology is studied for two evenings a week and by distance learning and attracts people from a wide range of occupations, says Dr Andreas Liefooghe, the head of department. "We have had engineers, farmers, clergy and lawyers. It is a very broad-based programme looking into such things as why people do the things they do in organisations, motivation, the effect of technology, and whether it is best to change the person to fit the job or the job to fit the person," he says. The network learning option starts with a residential session so students can meet the people and staff they will correspond with online.
Current student Yildiz Betez combines evening study with her job as a partner and head of the business services department at Thackray Williams Solicitors in Bromley, Kent. She converted to law after a first degree in psychology. "I wanted to improve my management skills and to continue with my interest in psychology," she says. "The way careers are developing nowadays it helps to become a hybrid with skills in more than one area."
The course is useful for her role as a partner in a large, busy firm, but it also leaves the way open for her to become a chartered occupational psychologist should she decide to change direction.
"It is demanding to work full-time and study in the evening. I have to organise my life carefully and be very focused but it is possible to do both without either suffering, as long as you don't have a hectic social life," she says.
Evening and weekend study is likely to become even more important from September, as students will be reluctant to take on more debt as postgraduates once undergraduate tuition fees nearly treble to up to £9,000. So expect to see universities across the UK offer a wider and more flexible set of courses to attract those in work over the coming years.