Will full-time study become an expensive luxury?

The demand for flexible learning shows no signs of abating.

"You have to discover your inner nerd," says Sue Phillips, 42, business woman, teacher and now postgraduate student. She's studying part-time for an MSc in coastal and marine resource management at Portsmouth University, and while her lectures are on-campus, her research naturally takes place on the hoof at home in Winchester. "I went to the library once but didn't like it – it was full of students. Portsmouth has huge online resources. I'm absorbing information like a sponge; I'm so much more motivated than I was in my first degree years ago. I love the part-time option. It gives you time to think and go off on a tangent."

Like Phillips, most postgraduates in the UK fit study around busy lives. For now, lectures are still attended in person, but this won't always be so, according to visions of how universities will function in future. Ever more sophisticated technology might allow some institutions to do away with lecture halls without sacrificing social and academic interaction. Once the need to physically attend is removed, postgraduate study will become even more flexible and tailored, say educationalists.

As the ranks of postgraduates continue to rise – by 36 per cent over the last 12 years – and funding cuts bite, the need to find cheaper, more adaptable modes of delivery will become more urgent. Roughly one in four students in UK universities are studying at postgraduate level. Full-time study on campus beyond an undergraduate degree will for many become an expensive luxury; currently no government student loan structure exists for Masters and PhDs; fees are expected to rise and students may have to pay up front. Student debt, family responsibilities and the need to stay in employment are now a substantial obstacle for many wishing to enter postgraduate education.

"We've seen a big change in student needs over the last two years; there's more demand for flexibility," says Mike Nicholson, director of the Global Learning Centre at Durham Business School. "Students need to fit courses around their work; it's more competitive and harder to get time off." The school has offered distance learning for about 25 years, and now offers modules in centres around the world such as China, the Caribbean and Germany.

Like Phillips, many postgraduates begin further studies later in life, some with a helping hand from their employers. Many modern universities pride themselves on links with business, and their offering is often targeted and practical. "Businesses tend to view universities as cumbersome and slow, but we are responsive and used to a fast-paced environment," says Jane Turner, an associate dean at Newcastle Business School, where she creates bespoke postgraduate programmes according to demand from regional and national businesses. Recently she devised and led a Masters programme at Northumbrian Water, which wanted to develop leadership among employees. "We work on real-time issues," says Turner. "Academics are used to being disseminators of knowledge, but we are business-led, not 'chalk and talk'," she says. "But the actual Masters qualification is very important for the client."

Knowledge gained on the job forms the backbone of qualifications offered by a pioneering scheme at Middlesex University's Institute for Work Based Learning, which since 2008 has been offering flexible university learning "delivered through work, in work, for work, at work". Students who may have missed out on further and higher education altogether but are nevertheless skilled and trained professionals can gain academic credit for their knowledge and go on to study up to doctorate level, at their own pace.

"I was utterly frustrated by the options offered to me by many of the institutions I approached," says Bruce Dickinson, education director at Brighton Institute of Modern Music and former guitarist with the 1990s band Little Angels. Despite having toured with the likes of Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses, he was stymied by his lack of qualifications when he began to investigate a second career in music education. "They seemed unable to recognise what I had achieved and what I was already doing within my job, and I was effectively being asked to start at the bottom rung of the educational ladder," he says. Dickinson approached the institute and went on to gain an MA in professional studies and is now studying for his doctorate.

Applicants to the Institute are assessed and may have their existing knowledge accredited. They are also advised about bespoke work-based programmes or projects. "We give a lot of support," says Peter Critten, a manager at the Institute. His current students vary from a building-site clerk to a global account manager at a multinational computing company. "It's partly about recognition of the knowledge you've got, saying 'I deserve this'," says Critten. Companies from construction to financial services use the Institute to retain and reward and develop staff, often supporting them through programmes that can lead to pan-university qualifications. And you don't need to sign up – or stump up fees – for a three-year qualification in advance. "Many students like to dip their toe in the water with a short programme first," says Critten.

Unsurprisingly, one of the original pioneers of distance learning, the Open University (OU), is leading the field in making postgraduate education available to students with disabilities; it currently has 11,000 students with disabilities on its books – about 6 per cent of its student population – and 650 disabled postgraduates. While distance learning has traditionally suffered from a reputation for isolation, now sophisticated online-learning environments that encourage more spontaneous and sociable encounters among staff and students have done much to retain students who might otherwise have dropped out.

Within the OU, a team is dedicated to meeting the individual needs of disabled students, providing non-medical support at tutorials, as well as audio and visual materials. "We were traditionally seen as the university of the second chance, but we are the first and only chance for many disabled students," says Robin Stenham, manager of curriculum access at the OU. As new postgraduate material is developed, it will automatically be available in a number of parallel formats, such as html, talking book and mp3. Delivery aside, meeting the multiple needs of some students is often complex; a student with mental-health problems may need a variety of assistance, from technical to medical, or help with organisation and study skills for instance. "We might be their only chance to have a higher-education experience," says Stenham.

Modern universities are expected to lead the way in innovating the curriculum at postgraduate level and responding to new markets such as creative industries and digital technologies.

A flexible approach to delivering these qualifications will, say academic staff at these institutions, allow them to draw from a deeper pool of talent, in turn allowing businesses and the public sector to reap the benefits of this access to higher level skills and innovation.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: 1st Line IT Support - Surrey - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate IT Support Helpd...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Audit Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Audit Graduate Opportunities ar...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

SThree: TRAINEE RECRUITMENT CONSULTANT - IT - LONDON

£20000 - £30000 per annum + OTE £50k: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 bus...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?