'Spiritual homes' of mature learners turn to youngsters

October 14, 2005

Birkbeck, University of London, and the Open University, for decades spiritual homes to Britain's mature students, are to turn their attentions to school-leavers, because they have believe that they have spotted a gap in the recruitment market opened by top-up fees.

Their decision springs from the belief that the introduction of top-up fees next year will force many 18-year-olds to earn money during the day and study in the evenings to manage debt levels.

Both institutions have discussed their plans with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and Birkbeck has even considered how high its A-level entry requirements would be. From autumn 2008, Ucas will have a part-time admissions system to cater for the anticipated demand.

David Latchman, vice-chancellor of Birkbeck, said: "The positive side of tuition fees for us is that there may be 18-year-olds who decide they don't want to accumulate £30,000 of debt and think to themselves 'maybe I should have a day job and study in the evenings'.

"We have had discussions with Ucas about this and will be taking steps to recruit 18-year-olds next year. We are a prestigious institution and so will be asking for relatively high A levels from school and college-leavers. In the past we have tended to go on motivation and experience rather than A levels when deciding whether to accept a future student."

The OU has contacted Ucas advisers to ensure it will be promoted to school-leavers along with the rest of the UK's universities in time for next year's intake. But unlike Birkbeck, it does not plan to ask prospective students for specific A-level grades.

Will Swann, the OU's student services director, said: "This is the first time we have promoted people at school or at college. We did this because of the concerns about debt linked to the introduction of top-up fees.

"We want the OU on Ucas's radar. We recognise that for the majority of 18-year-olds, the OU is still not an option. We have a lot of awareness-raising to do.

"The profile of part-time students will change, but not dramatically or quickly. This is about shifting young people's perceptions."

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said that students should not reject studying for a degree full time because of a fear of accumulating debt.

He said: "Higher education institutions are autonomous organisations that develop their own provision in response to changing patterns of demand.

However, under the new system - with the scrapping of upfront fees and the reintroduction of student grants - no student needs to be deterred from studying full time due to financial worries."

Mr Rammell will discuss the Government's latest initiatives for the UK's 885,195 part-time students at a conference next Tuesday.

The conference, titled Supporting Part-time Students in Higher Education, is hosted by Universities UK.

It will include speakers from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University.

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