The increase in the cost of attending a traditional university course and the shortage of places could encourage more students to choose alternative kinds of study.
The Open University is the most well-established distance-learning institution in the UK but newer companies are also springing up to meet the increased demand for non-traditional learning.
The Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, Martin Bean, was extremely positive about the changes suggested in the Browne review, saying that it “marks the end of a two tier system which until now has disadvantaged part-time students. It signals the start of a new, modern era of higher education which promotes opportunity, flexibility, quality and the crucial role of part-time in delivering future economic growth and social mobility.”
Resource Development International (RDI) provides online courses in partnership with UK institutions such the University of Warwick and the University of Birmingham. The fees for most courses are not significantly different to the fees currently charged at traditional universities: students pay £11,500 for an MBA from the University of Bradford or £8,694 for an MSc in Public Administration and Development from the University of Birmingham.
The difference is the time commitment needed to complete the degree. Over 90 precent of students have regular jobs while studying for their degree with RDI.
Rapid developments in technology mean the opportunities for Internet-based courses have expanded. The Open University uses a combination of post, phone and Internet, while key resources such as a library are available online. RDI provides over 20 courses that are entirely internet-based. As more people are able to access the web wherever they are using their phone, the flexibility of this type of course will only increase further.
Distance study won’t suit everyone: the range of courses available is still largely limited to profession-orientated subjects, and the majority are for postgraduate study. RDI mainly provides Masters programmes for business or finance, but degrees in tourism and public administration are also available.
In the US a substantial industry for online degrees has already emerged and some big players are getting involved. On Sunday, Bill Gates pledged $20 million through his charity to help improve online learning, in particular for community colleges and young people from low-income groups.
The number of degrees available online has allowed some companies to take advantage by offering bogus degrees that take less than a week to complete. The challenge for the UK will be to ensure that distance-learning is seen as, and actually is, a good substitute for a traditional degree.