Few students of Wye College will ever set foot in the small Kent village of that name in future. The reason is that the agricultural college of the University of London plans to double student numbers on its distance-learning courses to more than 1,500 in the next ten years.
Wye's external programme has blossomed since it first pioneered international distance learning at masters' level in 1988. "There now must be 40 out of 70 teaching and research staff involved in the external programme," says John Prescott, principal of Wye.
The programme is the brainchild of Ian Carruthers, professor of agrarian development at Wye, and external programme director and director of short courses.
Students may register for a single course, diploma or an MSc, for completion in up to five years, on the agricultural development or environmental management programmes. A new programme on food industry management and marketing begins next year.
Administrator Anne Weekes says: "Ours is an alternative, not a second-best option, which older correspondence courses might have been, for those who cannot study full time."
It is also less costly. The masters course costs a third as much as bringing an overseas student to the United Kingdom, says Professor Carruthers. MSc registration currently costs Pounds 800 and each of the seven required courses costs Pounds 650.
Some 785 students are enrolled, compared with 580 undergraduates and 330 full-time postgraduates at Wye. They all sit their exams on the same day in October, this year at 105 sites worldwide, after a 35-week academic year, running from February to October.
"At first we thought we could just tidy up the notes from existing courses and put them out," says deputy director Jane Bryson. They were quickly disabused of this when Henry Bernstein - recently appointed professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies - joined Wye from the Open University to help develop the early course material. "We started with a clean sheet and planned the curriculum we wanted," says Dr Bryson.
Derek Ray, who is developing the new food programme with support from the Sainsbury Family Trust, says: "You have to be very precise and leave no ambiguity. If you come across something that is not clear you have to say why, otherwise students lose heart."
Materials are updated annually with major revisions about every five years. Despite computers, course materials are still print based and sent by courier to each student. Students may require a computer for some optional courses but not the core courses.
Today, many students fax their tutor-marked assignments back to Wye, and electronic mail improves communications between students and staff.
The programme is self-funding, with a gross income this year of about Pounds 750,000. Franchising now provides additional income, with the University of Sindh in Pakistan and the University of the West Indies both using Wye materials under licence to develop their own distance-learning degree programmes.
"What Wye franchisees are getting is quality at marginal cost - for example, the licence fee for one degree for five years is Pounds 50,000," says Professor Carruthers. Launching a distance-learning masters is expensive - about Pounds 750,000.
He is developing a mixed approach, with students able to start their masters at Wye, leave and continue with distance learning, and return for the exams. Others may move on from a short course to take up a diploma or degree programme.
In Zimbabwe, the government's extension service, with support from the Overseas Development Administration, has contracted the external programme to train more than 60 of its extension staff to MSc level. There is a part-time staff member in Zimbabwe to run tutorials.
All distance learning programmes, however, have high drop-out rates, often around 50 per cent, says Dr Bryson.
Students may leave for a huge variety of reasons - death, illness, job change or because they cannot settle into distance-learning study - but early results show that Wye retains about 60 per cent of students right through.