Richard Garner: From today, it's a brave new world for students

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In one of the bitter ironies of life, it looks today as if the Government could have almost clinched its target of getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education – if only it had provided enough university places.

Now, as a result of a pivotal change in the way youngsters are approaching higher education, it probably never will be achieved in the conventional way that many people assumed it would be.

More and more students – driven by the lack of places available and worried about debt – are turning their attention to distance learning through places such as the Open University. Many more, too, are studying at their local university rather than travelling further afield for a full-time residential experience. It may not be long, either, before growing numbers of universities develop degree courses which can be crammed into two years, to cut down on student debt.

Back to that target, though. It was originally pencilled in by then-prime minister Tony Blair for the turn of the decade but has been pilloried ever since as unattainable. Participation only rose marginally, to around 43 per cent.

Rival politicians queued up to point out it had been a figure plucked out of the air. The target became an aspiration, and then an aspiration for the future rather than the end of the decade.

Now, as a result of a massive surge in applications for higher-education places, we have around 60,000 more candidates applying, but a maximum of only 13,000 extra places to offer them.

It is hard to blame the Government for not foreseeing this eventuality, as this time last year it could hardly have been predicted. The strain on public purses makes it difficult to provide masses more university places at short notice.

Will that be the end of the line for tens of thousands of students, then? No, not if they look at these alternative ways of studying. The Open University, for the past few years, has seen a rising number of school leavers applying for its courses. The beauty is there is no cap on student numbers here and – even in times of recession – it will be possible for many of them at least to line up part-time employment to help them with their studies. At the very least, they will not have the accommodation and living costs associated with opting for a university course away from home.

In addition to distance learning, part-time courses are being promoted more prominently with Ucas, the university admissions service, offering all students eligible for clearing the opportunity to browse through all the part-time courses on offer at universities through an online link. As Anthony McClaran, chief executive of Ucas, pointed out in Monday's Independent, around 40 per cent of the courses on offer in higher education are now part-time.

By these methods, that original target or vague aspiration may be met.

It does seem that the cost of a university course (latest estimates predict this autumn's youngsters will end up £23,500 in debt on average once they have graduated) so far is not acting as a deterrent to youngsters. Whether that remains the case if the government review of top-up fees – which will start this autumn – recommends a massive hike from the ceiling of £3,150 a year is in the lap of the gods.

Meanwhile, it is probably a pretty safe prediction that the trend towards more studying at home will continue for the foreseeable future. In the next few years, it will be a case for thousands of: "It's higher education, Jim, but not as we know it."

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