Open University courses will be free to part-time students on benefits from next year, lifelong learning minister George Mudie said yesterday.
Mr Mudie outlined details of the scheme, first announced last September, to pay tuition fees on higher education courses at most institutions for part-time students on low incomes.
Students must be on courses that involve at least half the hours of a full-time course. Fees will be paid in full for those claiming income support, job seekers allowance, housing benefit or council tax benefit. However, the scheme does not extend to postgraduate qualifications.
Up to 25,000 students could benefit from the initiative. The Open University hopes to attract many of these places. Mr Mudie said: "The fee-waiver scheme could allow (The Open University) to accept an additional 10,000 people into its courses next year."
The Open University this year enrolled 30,000 part-time students at all levels. It has been allocated an extra 4,000 part-time places for next year to help widen participation by students from poor backgrounds. Nationally some 171,400 students started part-time degree, diploma and certificate courses this year, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Mr Mudie also signed up the first student to benefit from the scheme. Michele Major, who is 30, will take a one-year foundation course in science next year at The Open University. "I left school, got married and had two children," she said. "Now I am divorced and I just want to get off benefits. With a degree, I could get a decent job to support myself and my children. This course will get me back into education."
From autumn 2000, part-time students on benefits will also be eligible to borrow at least Pounds 500 a year for course expenses such as books and equipment.