External students at the 'people's university'

By Sarah Bell
BBC News

Image caption,
External students like Jasmine are supported online

Universities must find more flexible and cheaper ways to teach, the government has said. Expanding chances for students to study long-distance is one such proposal.

For 150 years, the University of London has allowed students unable to travel to the capital to study for one of its external degrees - a system Charles Dickens described as "the people's university".

Notable alumni include Nelson Mandela, who studied while incarcerated on Robben Island, and five other Nobel Prize winners.

It currently has 45,500 students studying by distance and flexible learning in 180 countries, with another 6,000 students in the UK.

This is in addition to the tens of thousands of students - the majority - who study at the university's 19 colleges and institutions in the capital.

Now it is being heralded as a model for other institutions to follow, a way of increasing accessibility to higher education, without breaking the bank.

'Virtual learning'

Universities Minister David Willetts says students should be able to study at a local further education college for an external degree from a university, to reduce living costs.

One attraction of the external programme is that it costs most students around £3,500 - much less than a 'traditional' campus degree, where fees alone in England cost £3,225 a year - but is considered to be equally prestigious.

This system is very similar by that offered by the Open University, which thousands of people use for distance learning each year.

Jasmine Van Hoeylandt, 25, lives in London. She has just completed a three-year degree in economics and management using the external system with academic direction from the London School of Economics, as she originally thought she would be living abroad.

She explains students receive a study guide and materials written by academics who teach in the university's colleges, then work through the syllabus at their own pace.

They then sit examination papers which are marked in London.

"You've got to be motivated and quite disciplined to study by yourself, it's hard," she says. "The fact it is all exams is quite scary, but that's a good motivation to keep studying."

Image caption,
The University of London's ethos is to provide education for all

And while she may lack the comradeship garnered from grabbing a coffee between lectures or nights in the student union, Mrs Van Hoeylandt says she's received support in a very modern form.

"There's a virtual learning environment, and each subject has its own forum. If you put a question down, 10 minutes later someone may have replied to you from Hong Kong, trying to answer it.

"You can get 15 replies in 15 minutes, so you do get feedback from your fellow students."

She has also taken part in study weekends and summer schools at LSE, at which she has met professors and fellow students.

Mrs Van Hoeylandt would recommend her experience, and she says she chose the LSE programme through the external system as she feels it is considered to be a prestigious degree.

She denies that there is a two-tier system in operation, as all graduates are examined by the LSE with materials set by the same academics.

"It's a very high standard, I felt I had to work my butt off to get the degree I wanted, so hopefully I will get my 2:1."

'Desire to inform'

The university's founding principle was to provide education for all, which drives the continuing focus on increasing accessibility.

Professor Jonathan Kydd, dean of its external degree system, says: "There's a strong belief by academics that what they have to say is interesting and important and they have a desire to inform and instruct as wide a group of people as possible."

This has been the case throughout history: established in 1836, it was the first university in the UK to open its doors to women and launched the external system in 1858.

He believes it empowers people who may have work, family or care commitments to study further.

But he admits it's a disadvantage for students to not be able to sit in a classroom and have as much contact with their peers.

He says the reason the university can offer degrees "a lot, lot cheaper" at around £3,500, because they operate on such a large scale.

Professor Kydd says: "That's why David Willetts has been drawing this method to the attention of the public, it's something to think about.

"It's about getting the balance between the social side of the university experience, being with your student peers and feeling that exciting experience, with those people who are not fortunate to get to go to a campus."

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