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.

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